Paul Ritter: They Are Watching Us, July 29, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Paul Ritter
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 16– August 1, 2013 

Mission: Southeast Fishery-Independent Survey (SEFIS)
Geographical area of cruise: southeastern US Atlantic Ocean waters (continental shelf and shelf-break waters ranging from Cape Hatteras, NC to Port St. Lucie, FL)
Date: July 29, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge

7-28-13 ship data

Happy Anniversary, Jodee!

Before I start my blog today I want to take a minute to say Happy Anniversary to my wife Jodee.  We have been married 18 wonderful years and I love her more today than ever before.  I am sorry that we can be together because  the team and I are chasing reef fish in the Atlantic Ocean.  Actually, now that I think about it this is the first time that we have not been together on our Anniversary.  That being said, there are some surprises that are being delivered to the house and I hope you like them.  I Love You,  Dear.

Science and Technology Log
Date: Monday July 29, 2013

I woke up around 5:30 this morning and it was a calm and beautiful day.  The water was as smooth as glass.  I never thought the water could be so still in the ocean.  After grabbing a cup of java, I ventured out to see the sunrise.  There sure is something about seeing a sunrise when there’s no land in sight.  It was breathtaking.

As I got ready to set out the day’s traps with my team, I went in to the dry lab to ask Zeb, our Chief Scientist, what our drop sites looked like on the bottom.  There is a lot of work that goes into preparing for our team to be able to set traps every day.  The acoustics lab / night team, consisting of  Warren Mitchell, Chief Investigator and a NOAA fisheries biologist, David Berrane a NOAA fisheries biologist, Matt Wilson a NOAA hydrographer, Dawn Glasgow a South Carolina Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist, and Neah Baechler a college student studying Geology at the College of Charleston, SC, started around 5:00 the day before.   This team is amazing.  They stay up all night mapping the ocean floor utilizing a technology that we refer to as the ME70.  The Simrad ME 70 is basically a very high resolution scientific multibeam sonar system that is utilized for data collection from the water column and the ocean floor.

What is very cool is that the system is capable of very high resolution mapping allowing the night team to predict where it is that we will have the best chances to find reef fish habitat the following day.  This team is the best at finding natural hard bottom habitat that is the quintessential reef-a-palooza.  How does the ME 70 work?  The ship sends out a cone of sound (ping) to the ocean floor and it bounces off of the ocean floor and back to the ship.  From there the ship’s computer knows the total distance that sound traveled traveled.  The data is then interpreted into a map of the ocean floor.  This explanation is overly simplified but it works.  Each morning the team takes the raw data from the ME 70 and it is corrected for tides, sound speed, and vessel offset (brings data to the waterline).  The raw sounding data is then processed into a bathymetric model that represents the sea floor and is the map that Zeb then uses to pick our trap locations.  It is magic.

Here is a sonar system measuring the depth of the ocean...
Here is a sonar system measuring the depth of the ocean…

Personal Log

Date: Monday  July 29, 2013

Paul Ritter with a “stowaway”

Have you ever thought that animals were watching you?  I think about this all of the time.  I will be doing something and it is like my dogs are always trying to find out what I am up to.  The cats are constantly checking to see if I am going to put food in their bowl.

I do not have any animal paranoia but I do think they are watching us.   Our expedition has made me a believer.  Today we started setting our traps and we noticed that at some point in night the NOAA Ship Pisces gained two stowaways, a little House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), and a little yellow Palm Warbler (Dendroica palmarum).  These two little guys were keeping very close tabs on what our team was doing while we were setting our first traps of the day.  Gradually, this little dynamic duo gradually became more brave as we put our set of six traps into the water.  As I looked at the little birds, I was thinking to myself, “I have seen my cats watch me like this.”

I quickly looked for something to feed them.  While the NOAA Ship Pisces does carry just about everything you can think of, there is no bird food to be found.  Jenny, one of the fisheries biologist on my team, quickly came up with the idea to give the hungry little buggers some flax seed.  No go.  They were not interested.  They were however interested in the water she had set out.  Eventually, they both became brave enough to jump onto my hand in hopes of finding something there.  Again no go.  It was as we were setting out our next set of traps that the birds both did something very cool.  They were picking up the leftover bits and pieces of the Menhaden that had fallen on the ground.  Man they could eat.  There was no way they were going to leave their new found buffet.

Paul Ritter and an octopus

During the collection of our second series of traps we noticed that again we had a stowaway.  A Common Octopus (Octopus vulgaris) had climbed aboard our trap and rode it all the way to the surface.  Upon arrival to the ship, this orange speckled cephalopod decided to abandon the trap and hit the deck.  Holy cow, it’s hard to pick up an octopus.  Their tentacles go everywhere and their suction cups hold on to everything they come in contact with, including my arm.  Once it grabbed my arm, our eyes made contact.  This little guy was watching me.  Maybe he was trying to figure out what exactly I was, or trying to figure out if I was going to eat him.  Nonetheless, he was not letting go.   Eventually, a number of us were able to hold him before he decided he was tired of the game and fell over the side of the ship, back to the depths below.  Ironically, our third set of traps also netted an octopus.  I suggested that we rename our expedition the cephalopod survey.  The team did not think that was funny.

Once on board, the second octopus also had its eyes keenly focused on everyone and everything that was going on.   It stared everyone down.  I always thought octopuses were very cool, but now after my encounters I think they are amazing.

Atlantic Spotted Dolphin
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin

Normally, our third series of traps on board would mean the end of the day; however due to our amazing results from the previous trappings Zeb decided we could set three more individual traps on a short run.  As we set the traps, we noticed that our ship was being followed.  A pod 4 of Atlantic spotted dolphin (Stenella frontalis) were playing on the waves around the ship and soon there would be more.   One by one, more dolphins showed up.  While we were bringing in the traps, the dolphins waited by the buoys to see what was going on.  We brought in the traps, emptied our catch of Black Sea Bass into our counting bins and Zach and I would roll the chevron traps back to the aft deck to be stored.  While we were walking back, I felt as if we were being followed.  Sure enough we looked down and there they were, following us to the back of the ship.  They truly were amazing to watch.  After the second trap was aboard, the bridge of the ship put the ship into reverse to get a better angle at the third and last trap.  I never thought a 209 foot ship could travel the same speed backward as forward.  It was exciting.  What was even more exhilarating was the fact that the dolphins were all on the back of the ship riding the wave as the ship pushed itself through the water.  I think my camera snapped fifty pictures before they disappeared under the Pisces.

This experience has been a life changing dream come true for me.  To be able to work, side by side, some of the most brilliant fisheries biologist, hydrographers, and geologist the planet has to offer has been humbling.  I am truly thankful to be able to be apart of  this crew and it is exciting to know that while we are exploring the different habitat and animals around us, they are watching us too.

Did You Know?

Did you know the word cephalopod means “head-footed”?

Did you know that octopuses can change their color using chromatophores?

The name octopus came from the Greek language which means eight footed.

Want to know more about the Atlantic Spotted Dolphin?

Paul Ritter: Trap-Tastic – A Great Day in the Sun, July 18, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Paul Ritter
Aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces
July 16– August 1, 2013 

Mission: Southeast Fishery-Independent Survey (SEFIS)
Geographical area of cruise: Southeastern US Atlantic Ocean waters (continental shelf and shelf-break waters ranging from Cape Hatteras, NC to Port St. Lucie, FL)
Date: July 18, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge

7-18-13 ship data

Science and Technology Log

Paul Ritter onboard NOAA Ship Pisces

Life at sea is crazy and amazing.  It is kind of like Forrest Gump would say “ you never know what you’re gonna get”.  Today we set out our first two sets of traps.  Six individual traps are baited up with a fish called Menhaden—Brevoortia tyrannus.

Menhaden are about 15 to 35 cm long and they very stinky.  They might stink more than any fish I have ever smelled.  Menhaden are high in oil and a major source of omega-3 fatty acids, which make them delicious to other fish and keeps them from having heart disease and Alzheimer’s.  It must work.  Think about it, I have never heard of a fish having a heart attack let alone Alzheimer’s.  Back to the traps….

Each trap gets four bait lines of Menhaden and then we cut up and throw in eight more just for good measure, kind of like they did in Jaws.  Once the bait is in, the trap door is shut, and cameras are put on tops of each trap.  One camera facing forward and one camera facing backwards completes the setup for the reef survey chevron trap.  The cool thing about the cameras on the traps is the front ones are Go Pro video cameras which are most often used in extreme sports.  I actually own two of them.  No. I am not really in to extreme sports.  We use them as helmet cams when we ride our four wheelers on trails.

The traps, which are individually numbered, are laid out on the aft deck (back) of the ship to prepare for sending them to the ocean floor.   An amazing feature of the ship is the ramp deck.  The moment Zeb “the chief scientist” gives the shout on the radio, Ryan “the skilled fisherman” (his actual title) pulls the lever and the back of the ship, or ramp deck, slides down.  It is at this point when the traps, cameras, and Menhaden are pushed off the back and all fly to the reef below.   It takes a little over a minute for the trap to reach the bottom which is around 70 meters or 223 feet deep.  Ninety minutes later we recover the traps one by one and inspect the catch.

Menhaden bait fish dangling from stringers

Personal Log

Thursday July 18, 2013

Well, the great big exciting news for this expedition….  I don’t get sea sick.  Woo Hoo.  You might not think this is such an amazing thing but you have no idea how happy I am to be able to say this.  We had at least one person who got sick already and I am thankful not to have gone through it.

I woke up around 5:30 A.M. this morning to get ready for our first day of work.  Breakfast consisted of pancakes, sausage, bacon, eggs, and juice.   I am here to tell you that the Chief Steward (Moises) aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces might be one of the best things to happen to her.   While I have only been on board for 48 hours, it is readily apparent that the crew has been well taken care of when it comes to eating.  Delicious.

After breakfast our team made our way to set up our video/chevron live trap on the aft (back)deck to prepare for the day’s work.  At around 7:45, we got the call from Zeb (the chief scientist) in the dry lab to start dropping traps.  First set of six traps made it into the water with no trouble.   Ninety minutes later we hauled them all back in one by one.  We emptied the live fish from the traps into tubs and placed them into the wet lab.  Zack Gillum, a graduate assistant from East Carolina University and my roommate for this expedition, and I carried the traps back to the aft deck and prepared them for re-baiting.  With the ship in full gear it only took about a half hour for us to reach our second drop zone or sampling area.

After our ninety minute bottom time, the traps came up, the traps were cleaned out and we were done sampling for the day.  The main reason we were done is that it was going to take us quite awhile to travel to our next sample site.    During this time of cleaning up, we emptied the traps, which were very smelly, and filled with half eaten Menhaden.  Wow they even stink after they have been underwater for ninety minutes.  which included swabbing the deck.  The only thing I could think of when we were scrubbing away is a song I learned during my childhood… It goes something like this….

Maybe you've heard the expression, "Swab the Deck?" It just means "Mop the Floor."
Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “Swab the Deck?” It just means “Mop the Floor.”

If you’re a pirate and you know it, swab the deck (swish, swish),

If you’re a pirate and you know it, swab the deck (swish, swish),

If you’re a pirate and you know it, then your face will surely show it (swish, swish),

If you’re a pirate and you know it, swab the deck (swish, swish).

Trust me if you sing it once it will stick in your head the rest of your life, it has mine for the last 35 plus years.

Somewhere in the middle of about the 50th verse of the song, we had an emergency fire drill.  It was relatively easy.  We simply had to quickly make our way to our prearranged staging area.  No big deal.  Shortly after that the Captain of the Pisces called an emergency evacuation drill.  This drill was not quite as easy. We had to run to our stateroom, grab long sleeve t-shirts, long pants, a hat, and our survival suit.  Once on deck we had to don all of our gear in about sixty seconds.  Man that thing was hot and sweat was pouring off of me like water going over Niagara Falls.  What is worse, I looked like a giant red Gumby Doll.  After the drill we finished cleaning up our messes, and filleted all of our fish and whatever we do not need to keep for research, will get donated to the local food pantries.  NOAA is amazing and so are her people.

Paul Ritter, in his ‘Gumby Suit’


Did You Know? 

Ships use different terms to describe direction on a ship.  They are easy to remember.

Port = left side

Starboard = Right side

Aft = Back