Cara Nelson: The Ocean Moved Me, September 26, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cara Nelson

Aboard USFWS R/V Tiglax

September 11-25, 2019


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

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 26, 2019

Weather Data from Anchorage, AK:

Time: 14:18
Latitude: 61º13.257′ N
Longitude: 149º51.473’ W
Wind: North 1 knot
Air Temperature: 5.6ºC (42ºF)
Air Pressure: 1026 millibars
Sunny

Personal Log

As I drove home from Seward yesterday I was overwhelmed by the snow-capped mountains and vibrant fall colors that were such a stunning contrast to the ocean views of the past two weeks.  One no less beautiful than the other.  I had almost three hours to reflect on my experience out at sea and I can say that the ocean had a powerful impact on me. 

mountains
Termination dust settles over the mountains on the drive home from Seward.

Before I summarize my reflections from this trip, I want to rewind to where I left off on my last blog and give an update of the last leg of our journey.  On Monday afternoon, the forecast had not improved enough for travel and the decision was made to spend another night in Kodiak harbor.  This was a difficult call but it seemed like the weather was just getting the better of us.  Many were getting restless with the extended stay in Kodiak, the lack of ability to collect the necessary data for research projects and the overall feeling of being trapped (we were docked a about a mile from town with not much is open on Sundays and Mondays in Kodiak in late September).  On Tuesday morning, the seas were still forecast to be quite high, but Russ made the call to attempt to head out to sample the end of the Kodiak line with the day crew.  It was a difficult call, as it would put us far out to sea if the conditions were bad, but he also risked missing a key opportunity to get much needed data considering the gaps we had from the rest of the trip. 

We immediately began to encounter large swells leftover from the previous gale.  The ten footers rocked the boat side to side as we sat in the mess during the transit.  By the time we reached the first station, all of us were a bit pensive.  The winds were beginning to pick up and we were encountering larger swells as we hit the more open waters of the gulf.  After a tenuous CTD tow and CalVet, Captain John shut down the sampling due to a growing safety risk and Dan pointed the ship to Seward to begin our 20-hour final journey home. 

By sunset the winds had picked up even further to about 30 knots and the seas were getting to 14 feet.  It became difficult to move around the ship, but I made my way very carefully to the bridge.  Holding on tight with one hand, I was able to video the ship as she moved through the waves.  Remember this is 120-foot vessel. Shortly after this the waves made it all the way over the top of the bridge!

R/V Tiglax in High Seas

By 11pm, no one was able to do anything but try and sit still and hold on.  The winds had picked up to 40 knots and the sea state to 16 foot swells across our port side.  One particular wave really did a number and the galley and mess took quite the hit.  The food processor, mixer and dishes went flying, amongst other things, and the ship had to come to a stop for cleanup.  I had a hard time not rolling out of bed was unable to sleep until we were closer to sheltered waters at around 3am.  When I awoke the next day, Russ shared that in all his years as an oceanographic researcher he has never had a cruise that encountered such bad weather and rough seas.  I am actually glad I got to experience it, as I feel like this is the true colors of the Northern Gulf of Alaska in late September. 

Today as I sit back on my couch in Anchorage writing my final blog, I sway back and forth as the ocean swells still exert their power over my inner ear. Below are some my reflections from my experience:

  • Science is hard on the oceans! The LTER program has a team of scientists attempting to collect important data over a 6-week window from the spring to fall.  The problem is that despite the best logistical planning and preparation, mother nature still controls the show.  There isn’t a second chance or a next week for data collection for these researchers so they must constantly reevaluate their trip and work closely with the crew to come up with the best plan on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.  For some on the cruise, this data is needed to complete a master’s degree thesis this year, for others it is used to publish research based on grant funding requirements.  The money cannot be reimbursed due to weather delays or broken equipment.  Science in the field is hard and I have the utmost respect for the scientists aboard who did not waver in the face of the stressful cruise conditions and who maintain integrity and quality in their data collection throughout. 
cruise plan
Our cruise plan hanging in the lab. The only line we were able to complete on this trip was the Middleton line on the far right.
  • A good team is important.  Night work is hard work physically and mentally, so I was fortunate to work on the team that I did aboard R/V Tiglax.  Jenn was an amazing leader and friend to me during the cruise.  I felt comfortable with her from the minute we met and we shared many laughs together.  She was able to lead and educate our team, while making it comfortable and fun at the same time.  Heidi was the sweetest and kindest person around.  Her love of her work was infectious and I found myself very excited to see and help sample the jellyfish that were collected in each Methot. I have no doubt that she will continue to do great work in this field while bringing joy to those around her.  Emily is a superstar prospective graduate student at UAF.  Her energy and positivity were a welcome addition to our long nights on sampling.  Whatever needed done, Emily was ready and willing to jump in.  Overall, we settled in quickly as an efficient and productive team.  One that I was proud to be part of and one that I will never forget.
night shift group photo
Myself, Heidi, Emily and Jenn.
  • Life at sea is challenging and rewarding. The crew of R/V Tiglax spends months away from home working to serve the scientific research community.  Their jobs are hard, with only a few days off each season.  Their shifts are long, with 12 hour shifts each day, seven days a week.  Yet at the same time, each crew member clearly loves being out on the ocean and working in this field.  They welcomed us as I am sure they welcome each new team of researchers and made us feel at home aboard their ship.  They kept us safe, made us laugh, fed us well and worked their hardest to assure we collected the data that we could.  I am not sure I could do their job, but at the same time I am in envy of what they get to experience and see each season out on the ocean.  A special thank you to John, Dan, Dave, Jen, Andy and Margo for an experience of a lifetime aboard R/V Tiglax!
Dan and Jen
First mate Dan and deck hand Jen, they kept us smiling all night every night.
  • The oceans are warm.  As we worked far off on the Seward and Middleton lines, just past the continental shelf, we noticed something strange, the seawater coming out of our hose was oddly warm on our hands.  Whispers of a return of “The Blob” are circulating in the news as we return to port and we worry we were experiencing it firsthand.  “The Blob” was an unusual ocean warming event that occurred in the North Pacific and NGA in 2014-2016.  It created a nutrient poor environment that had ripple effects through the ecosystem, and is blamed for massive bird deaths, declines in salmon fisheries and shifts in marine mammal behaviors.  It will take time for the CTD data from this cruise to be analyzed to draw conclusions, but this type of event is exactly why the LTER study is so important.  We need to know as much as we can about this ecosystem so we can better understand its response and resiliency to major stressors such as a warming ocean.
sea surface temperature
Sea surface temperatures in 2014 compared to 2019 in the North Pacific and Northern Gulf of Alaska. The red color indicates the temperature shift above normal. Photo credit: NOAA Coral Reef Watch.
  • Ecosystems are infinitely complex. I had no idea the depth and breadth and interconnectivity of the oceanographic research I would experience during my time out at sea.  The LTER program is an amazing study that truly attempts to piece together a whole-systems view of the NGA by examining detailed aspects of the chemical, physical and biological ocean environment.  Aboard our ship alone we had trace metals investigations, phytoplankton productivity and abundance studies, temperature and salinity modeling and analysis, seabird and marine mammal observations, zooplankton morphological and molecular analysis, and jellyfish abundance and biomass evaluation. Individually this data is valuable for baseline information, but the true importance lies in understanding the interplay between all of these aspects in the ecosystem.  I feel we are just beginning to scrape the surface in terms of our understanding of our ocean environment, let alone how we are impacting it.  I feel it is imperative that this research continues and that I as a teacher help educate about its importance.
Crab larvae and krill
Crab larvae and krill peer back at me from one of our samples of the thriving ecosystem just below the surface.

Prior to my departure, my biggest hope for my trip was that I was able to see a sperm whale.  I return satisfied, not because I saw a sperm whale, but rather because I saw so much more. I am enthralled by the vastness of the of ocean and the fortitude of life that survives upon and within.  I am in awe of how little we see and experience by sailing across its surface or even dropping in an occasional net. I hope in my lifetime I am able to witness more of the ocean’s incredible secrets revealed, without being at the expense of the sea and its inhabitants. 

I am anxious to return to my students to tomorrow as I have missed them. I am eager to answer their questions and share my pictures.  Additionally, I am so excited to share my story with other teachers across my district and state to encourage them to apply to this amazing program.  It was a true honor to be a NOAA Teacher at Sea, and it truly was a birthday gift to remember. 

Cara Nelson: Little Creatures that Rule the World, September 23, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cara Nelson

Aboard USFWS R/V Tiglax

September 11-25, 2019


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

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently sheltering in Kodiak harbor again

Date: September 23, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Time: 13:30
Latitude: 57º47.214’ N
Longitude: 152º24.150’ E
Wind: Northwest 8 knots
Air Temperature: 11ºC (51ºF)
Air Pressure: 993 millibars
Overcast, light rain


Science and Technology Log

As we near the end of our trip, I want to focus on a topic that it is the heart of the LTER study: zooplankton.  Zooplankton are probably the most underappreciated part of the ocean, always taking second stage to the conspicuous vertebrates that capture people’s attention.  I would argue however, that these animals deserve our highest recognition. These small ocean drifters many of which take part in the world’s largest animal migration each day. This migration is a vertical migration from the ocean depths, where they spend their days in the darkness avoiding predators, to the surface at night, where they feed on phytoplankton (plant plankton). Among the zooplankton, the humble copepod, the “oar-footed,” “insect of the sea,” makes up 80% of the animal mass in the water column.  These copepods act as a conduit of energy in the food chain, from primary producers all the way up to the seabirds and marine mammals.

copepod
A copepod. Photo credit: Russ Hopcroft.

Aboard the R/V Tiglax, zooplankton and copepods are collected in a variety of manners.  During the day, a CalVet plankton net is used to collect plankton in the top 100 meters of the water column.  

CalVet
Russ prepares the CalVet for deployment.

On the night shift, we alternated between a Bongo net and a Multinet depending on our sampling location.  The Bongo net is lowered to 200 meters of depth (or 5 meters above the bottom depending on depth) and is towed back to the surface at a constant rate.  This allows us to capture the vertical migrators during the night.  How do we know where it is in the water column and its flow rate you may ask?  Each net is attached to the winch via a smart cable.  This cable communicates with the onboard computer and allows the scientists to monitor the tow in real time from the lab. 

bongo net
The Bongo net coming back aboard. Note the smart cable attached to the winch that communicates with the computer. Grabbing the Bongo can be tricky in high seas as we learned on this trip!

The Multinet is a much higher tech piece of equipment.  It contains five different nets each with a cod end.  It too is dropped to the same depth as the Bongo, however each net is fired open and closed from the computer at specific depths to allow for a snapshot of the community at different vertical depths.

multinet
The Multinet about to be deployed during our night shift.

Copepod research is the focus of the two chief scientists, Russ Hopcroft and Jennifer Questel aboard R/V Tiglax.  Much of the research must occur back in the laboratories of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  For example, Jenn’s research focuses on analyzing the biodiversity of copepods in the NGA at the molecular level, using DNA barcoding to identify species and assess population genetics.  A DNA barcode is analogous to a barcode you would find on merchandise like a box of cereal.  The DNA barcode can be read and this gives a species level identification of the zooplankton.  This methodology provides a better resolution of the diversity of planktonic communities because there are many cryptic species (morphologically identical) and early life stages that lack characteristics for positive identification.  Her samples collected onboard are carefully stored in ethanol and frozen for transport back to her lab.  Her winter will involve countless hours of DNA extraction, sequencing and analysis of the data.

One aspect of the LTER study that Russ is exploring is how successful certain copepod species are at finding and storing food.  Neocalanus copepods, a dominate species in our collections, are arthropods that have a life cycle similar to insects.  They have two major life forms, they start as a nauplius, or larval stage, and then metamorphisize into the copepodite form, in which they take on the more familiar arthropod appearance as they transition to adulthood.  Neocalanus then spends the spring and summer in the NGA feasting on the rich phytoplankton blooms. They accumulate fat stores, similar to our Alaska grizzlies.   In June, these lipid-rich animals will settle down into the deep dark depths of the ocean, presumably where there is less turbulence and predation.  The males die shortly after mating, but the females will overwinter in a state called diapause, similar to hibernation.  The females do not feed during this period of diapause and thus must have stock-piled enough lipids to not only survive the next six months, but also for the critical next step of egg production.  Egg production begins in December to January and after egg release, these females – like salmon – will die as the cycle begins again. 

Part of Russ’s assessment of the Neocalanus is to photograph them in the lab aboard the ship as they are collected.  The size of the lipid sac is measured relative to their body size and recorded.  If females do not store enough lipids, then the population could be dramatically altered the following season. These organisms that are live sorted on the ship will then be further studied back in the laboratory using another type of molecular analysis to look at their gene expression to understand if they are food-stressed as they come out of diapause.

Russ Hopcroft at microscope
I watch in awe as Russ is able to manipulate and photograph copepods under a microscope amid the rocking ship.
Neocalanus
Two Neocalanus with their lipid sacs visible down the center of the body. Note the difference in the size of the lipid storage between the two.

Back in the UAF laboratory, countless hours must be spent on a microscope by technicians and students analyzing the samples collected onboard.  To give an idea of the scope of this work, it takes approximately 4 hours to process one sample.  A typical cruise generates 250 samples for morphological analysis to community description, which includes abundance, biomass, life stage, gender, size and body weight information.  There are three cruises in a season, and thus the work extends well into the spring. To save time, computers are also used to analyze a subset of the samples which are then checked by a technician.  However, at this stage, the computer output does not yet meet the accuracy of a human technician. All of these approaches serve to better understand the health of the zooplankton community in the NGA. Knowing how much zooplankton there is, who is there and how fatty they are, will tell us both the quantity and quality of food available to the fish, seabirds and marine mammals that prey upon them.  Significant changes both inter-annually and long-term of zooplankton community composition and abundance could have transformative effects through the food chain.  This research provides critical baseline data as stressors, such as a changing climate, continue to impact the NGA ecosystem.


Personal Log

After sheltering in Kodiak harbor overnight Friday, we once again were able to head back out during a break in the weather.  We departed Kodiak in blue skies and brisk winds on Saturday. 

sunset
Sunset over Marmot Island at the start of the Kodiak line on what would end up being our last night of sampling.

We made it to the start of the Kodiak line by sundown and began our night of sampling with the goal of getting through six stations.  The swells left over from the last gale were quite challenging, with safety a top priority this evening.  Waves were crashing over the top rale as we worked and the boat pitched side to side.  Walking the corridor from the stern to the bow required precise timing, lest you get soaked by a breaking wave, as poor Heidi did at least three times.

Despite having to pull the Methot early on one station and skip it all together on another due to the rough seas, we had an amazingly efficient and successful evening.  Our team was amazing to work with and Dan captured one last photo of us as we wrapped up our shift at 6am.

night shift group photo
The night shift “A Team”: Emily, Jenn, Jen, Cara and Heidi.

The day crew worked fast and furious on the return to station one as once again, another gale was forecast.  This gale was the worst yet, dipping down to 956 millibars in pressure with the word STORM written across the forecast screen for the entire Gulf of Alaska.  Luckily we were able to make it back into Kodiak harbor by Sunday evening just as winds and waves began to build.  After riding out the storm overnight we are still waiting for the 4pm forecast to reassess our final days two days.  The crew grows weary of sitting idle as the precious window for sampling closes.  Stay tuned for a follow up blog as I return to solid ground on Wednesday! 


Did You Know?

Copepods are the most biologically diverse zooplankton and even outnumber the biodiversity of terrestrial insects!

Cara Nelson: A Harbor in a Tempest, September 21, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cara Nelson

Aboard USFWS R/V Tiglax

September 11-25, 2019


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

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently sheltering in Kodiak harbor

Date: September 21, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Time: 12:20
Latitude: 57º47.214’ N
Longitude: 152º24.150’ E
Wind: Southwest 20 knots
Air Temperature: 12.8ºC (55ºF)
Air Pressure: 990 millibars
Clear skies


Science and Technology Log

As we sit in the shelter of Kodiak harbor, I thought I would dedicate this blog to the R/V Tiglax and her crew.  Careers in oceanographic research would not be possible without the support of research vessels and their crew.  R/V Tiglax is a 121-foot long U.S. Fish and Wildlife vessel that was commissioned in 1987.  Her primary mission is to support scientific research in the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge in the Aleutian chain and she was designed and built to accommodate this mission. 

R/V Tiglax layout
The layout of R/V Tiglax. Image credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

R/V Tiglax has an amazing fuel capacity of 40,000 gallons which allows it be away at sea for long periods each summer without refueling.  Additionally, it has a water desalination system that can produce approximately 500 gallons of fresh water daily. The ship seems to have at least two of everything: 2 engines, 2 generators, 2 cranes, 2 zodiac skiffs, 2 freezers, 2 washing machines, 2 stationary bikes, 2 televisions, and at least 2 fresh baked goods every day! 

Below is brief photo tour of the interior of R/V Tiglax.

Tiglax hallway
Looking down the hallway from the main deck aft.
Tiglax mess
The mess, where we eat all our meals and spend our down time.
Tiglax galley
The galley, where our amazing meals are prepared, even during 12-foot seas!
laundry
Down in the hold, there are several staterooms, storage rooms, and the very important laundry and boot dryers.
stateroom
My stateroom. There are 4 beds total and a small desk, and I have the top bunk.
Tiglax hold
The hold, where the science crew stores a lot of gear during the trip.
Tiglax science lab
One of the two science labs onboard. Active research is done throughout the day here as samples come aboard.

Much of the summer, R/V Tiglax can be found transporting scientists to remote field camps in the Western Aleutians and then up into the Bering Sea to the island of St. Matthews.  The science the ship supports is diverse and includes seabird and marine mammal monitoring, volcanic research, invasive species management and archeological studies.  Although the crew does not participate in this research directly, they are a critical piece to its success. They are responsible not just for the transport but also for the logistics of getting the scientists from ship to shore at each of the remote sites and assisting with the setup of equipment.

Since 2005, R/V Tiglax has been supporting the oceanographic research on the Seward line and for the past two years the ship has been contracted by the LTER project for $11,376 per day to complete the spring and fall cruises.  Again, the crew plays an integral part in this ocean research.  All of cranes and winches aboard the ship that are used for the water sampling gear and nets are operated by the crew.  Additionally, the captain and first mate navigate the ship to and from sampling sites and manage the vessel amid the changing seas during sampling sessions.  Their knowledge of the ship, currents, weather and tides is imperative in making decisions with the chief scientists as to travel, scheduling, and sampling.

Captain John
Captain John navigating the ship from the wheelhouse.

R/V Tiglax has a crew of six: a captain, first mate, two deckhands, an engineer and a cook.  For some, being a crew member is a long-time career choice. For others, it is a job to gain skills and experience and serves as more of a stepping stone to the future. 

John Farris began his career aboard R/V Tiglax nineteen years ago as a deckhand and has moved his way up to captain, a position he has held for the past four years. He works closely with Russ Hopcroft, the chief scientist, to assure the success of the mission.  John is warm and welcoming to the science crew and genuinely concerned about each member’s well-being during the cruise.  Safety is his number one priority and John closely monitors not only the ship but also the science work each day.

crew meeting
Captain John meets with the science team prior to deploying the CTD rosette.

Dan Puterbaugh is the first mate who has been a member of the crew for the past two years.  Dan has thirty-years’ experience working on ships in a variety of capacities and has a wealth of knowledge of the oceans. He pilots the ship from 10 pm – 6 am and helps oversee the science team on the night shift.  Dan greets each day with a smile and his passion for being out at sea and supporting the science research that goes on is truly evident. 

Dan Puterbaugh, first mate
Dan keeping watch in the wheel house.

The two deckhands aboard the ship are Dave and Jen.  Dave works the day shift with John and has been a crew member for the past 6 years.  He shares the challenges of working the night shift versus the day shift on the ship and is happy to have worked his way up to his current position on the crew.  Dave describes the sheer beauty of the Aleutians and the seabirds and marine mammals that inhabit them and how appreciative he is to experience this during his work.

Jen works on the night shift and joined the crew just this season.  She is one of the most interesting and eclectic individuals I have ever met.  Although she is new to the ship, she is not green and can maneuver a crane or a winch with precision and style.  Jen’s spirit and energy helped get us through the long hours of the night shift.  She enjoys combining her passion for science with her love of the ocean and will spend her winter crewing aboard a tall ship for the Woods Hole Semester at Sea program.  Whatever Jen’s future holds, it is assured to be tied to the sea. 

Jen, deckhand
Jen getting time at the wheel.

Andy, the ship’s engineer, began with his time aboard R/V Tiglax eleven years ago.  He, like others before him, started out as a deckhand and worked his way up in the ranks.  He spent time in the Navy doing propulsion work, so this experience serves him well in maintaining the mechanics of the Tiglax.  Although Andy is a bit more elusive, he is always right there when things needed repair.  He helped us get through several winch issues, a broken hydraulic line on the crane and a downed freezer and refrigerator in the galley. 

Last, but most importantly, is Morgan, the chef aboard R/V Tiglax.  Morgan has been with the ship for six years, and continues to wow the crew and scientists alike with her amazing meals.  Morgan attended culinary school in Denver before joining the ship as a relief cook her first summer.  When asked about how she manages to cook during high seas she says it took some getting used to at first but she quickly learned to manage.  Morgan’s talents are apparent in her daily fresh sourdough breads and home-made desserts.  Despite being out to sea for long periods of time, she maintains variety in each meal and does her best to infuse fresh ingredients wherever possible.  Morgan will spend her winter furthering her culinary training in Portland before returning for another season with the ship.

Morgan's puff pastries
Morgan’s puff pastries with homemade raspberry rhubarb sauce. They disappear so fast I couldn’t even photograph a full pan.


Personal Log

As is the theme for this September cruise, we once again were chased ashore by our fourth gale. On Thursday night, just after starting our night shift we were shut down by the building wind and waves and made a 16-hour harrowing transit from the Seward line to shelter in Kodiak harbor and reevaluate as the weather.   Although we were not happy to be missing more sampling, everyone was appreciative for the time to get cell reception and step foot on solid land.

We arrived in Kodiak harbor at 5pm on Friday night and had the fortune of docking at the state ferry dock.  After eating dinner aboard, we all ventured off into town. My dock rock continued as all of Kodiak seemed to be moving up and down and side to side.  All the crew and scientists ended up in same spot and enjoyed socializing together on our down time.  We returned to the ship and all appreciated a night of sleep that didn’t involve almost rolling out of the bed with each swell. 

Cara on ladder
Climbing off the ship can be challenging when the tides are low.

This morning we awoke to blue skies and strong winds.  Unfortunately, the night crew caved in at 3am and slept for a few hours.  Having a day off from work makes it easy to slip back to the normal schedule and working tonight might be difficult.  We await the afternoon forecast to see if we can head out to sample the Kodiak line before another gale blows in on Monday.  One thing that I have learned this trip is that successful oceanographic research requires a delicate dance with Mother Nature.

Did You Know?

R/V Tiglax often travels up to 20,000 nautical miles in one season!  A nautical mile is equal to 1.15 land measured miles and is based on the circumference of the earth.  One nautical mile is equal to one minute of latitude and is useful for charting and navigating.

Cara Nelson: Chemistry on the High Seas, September 19, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cara Nelson

Aboard USFWS R/V Tiglax

September 11-25, 2019


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

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently sampling along the Seward line.

Date: September 19, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Time: 18:30
Latitude: 59º53.587’ N
Longitude: 149º33.398’ E
Wind: South 15 knots
Air Temperature: 15.5ºC (60ºF)
Air Pressure: 998 millibars
Partly cloudy skies


Science and Technology Log

A major component of the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) project is the collection and analysis of physical parameters in the Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) and how these abiotic (non-living) factors interact with and impact the biological community.  A variety of physical oceanographic research is occurring during the day shift on R/V Tiglax, one of which includes looking at metals in the ocean water. 

Mette Kaufmann is the onboard research professional working on the collection of trace metals from the surface water.  Specifically, Mette is working to sample and process iron species for Dr. Ana Aguilar-Islas who is the principal investigator for iron biogeochemistry on the LTER study.  One might ask, why is there such a focus or interest in iron in the surface ocean water?  In the past few decades it has become evident through research that iron is major player in the productivity of the ocean ecosystem.  Prior to this, nitrogen was assumed to be the most important nutrient and limiting factor in phytoplankton growth and production.  It is now known that iron influx from surface and atmospheric sources is the major limiting factor in our coastal and offshore ecosystems. 

Glacier runoff from the Kenai peninsula and the Copper River plume carry this iron into the ocean and allow for a rich spring bloom of phytoplankton over the continental shelf.  Sampling the iron levels at different locations helps paint a picture as to the overall availability, transport and use of iron in the NGA.  For example, one question the researchers are examining is, do fall storms bring up iron to the surface from deeper water?  Additionally, copper samples are being collected for analysis on this cruise, as a factor that can potentially suppress photosynthesis at higher levels.  

As I mentioned in my second blog, there is a tool for every job and for iron sampling, it is the “iron fish.”  The iron fish looks a bit like a rusty torpedo being dragged next to the boat with a simple plastic hose attached to it.  However, looks can be deceiving, as this piece of equipment is quite high tech.

iron fish
The iron fish weight resting on the zodiac.

The actual sampling piece of the iron fish is the white tubing that can be seen in the picture below.  The tip of the tubing has a red cap and is attached to the weight.  This tubing is treated with acid and has an inner lining of Teflon to assure for a “clean” catch of metals.

iron fish tubing coil
The iron fish tubing coiled up with the red-capped collection tip attached to the weight.

As we transit between stations the iron fish is towed at 1-3 meters of depth off the starboard side of the boat.  The pump, which runs off of the boats air supply, send the water through the tubing and into the “van” on the mid deck.  This van is a small connex that is used for trace metal processing.  Inside the van, the water samples are processed through a 0.4-micron filter to remove any particulates and then stored in acid for analysis back in the metals laboratory at UAF. 

The iron fish being towed while underway and sending samples into the van on the deck.
Annie Kandell
Annie Kandell, a graduate student under Dr. Aguilar-Islas, works to process the water samples in the van clean room to avoid contamination.


Personal Log

As we started our shift on Tuesday evening heading into Wednesday morning, we knew a gale was approaching.  We wanted to squeeze in as many sampling stations as we could before the weather chased us away.  It was challenging to manage both the Methot and Multinet in the high seas and building wind, but also a lot of fun.  We were handling the waves crashing over the back deck and rushing across us as we sampled and measured and getting really good at pouring off the cod-ends with the rise and fall of the boat in the swell.  Unfortunately, by our third station of five, the wind and waves were putting such a strain on the winch that the Multinet couldn’t get an accurate reading or sample.  The winch began to not respond and the decision was made to call it for the night, even though it was only 2:30am.  We strapped things down and proceeded to make a run for shelter back in Resurrection Bay. 

I awoke on Wednesday at around 11am expecting it to be raining sideways and blowing still, but was surprised again by partly cloudy skies and a much calmer sea state.  I was pleasantly surprised to hear that we were going to take the afternoon for an excursion to Bear Glacier.  We all donned our mustang coats and took three groups in the zodiac to head to shore.  We were diverted due to rough breakers to a separate beach away from the glacier but all of us were happy to be ashore. 

group photo
The night shift and part of the day shift preparing to go ashore.

We had about 4 hours to hike around and explore the shoreline.  One of the drawbacks of the beauty of the amazing rocky shoreline along the Gulf of Alaska is that it is littered with human trash.  The trash entering from around the Pacific circulates through the ocean driven by the currents.  Some of the water gets caught up in the counterclockwise gyre of the Gulf of Alaska current and then gets deposited on land by the storms.  Just a few steps onto the shore and plastic water bottles are visible everywhere. What is less visible is the plastics that are broken up into small pieces or micro-plastics that then invade the entire water column.  These plastics get ingested by marine organisms, such as seabirds, and can cause death from starvation, as their stomachs are clogged with debris.  It makes you appreciate our impact on the oceans and the dire need for a shift in our plastic use and disposal.

plastic on beach
Can you spot the 6 plastic bottles just in this one picture?

Aside from the trash, the beach held other treasures and the walk in the fresh air and sunshine was greatly appreciated.

Mermaid's purse
An empty egg case for a Skate, also known as a Mermaid’s Purse.
algae on shore
Beautiful colors of red, green and brown algae decorate the rocky shore.

I did have an interesting case of what the seasoned crew calls “dock rock.”  This is when you are used to the motion of the sea and everything on land seems to be moving like the ocean.  It didn’t make me land sick but it did throw me off a bit.  I wonder how long I will sway when I return!

R/V Tiglax
A view of our current home, R/V Tiglax from the shore.

We boarded the ship in time for another fabulous dinner and prepared to head back out to the Seward line for another night of sampling.


Did You Know?

Dr. Thomas C. Royer is a physical oceanographer who was the first to begin water sampling along the GAK (Seward) line almost 40 years ago.  His research led to the discovery of significant coast currents in the Northern Gulf of Alaska that are driven by freshwater input.  It was this knowledge of coastal currents that assisted with the prediction of oil spill trajectories during the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  His groundbreaking work was the start of the Long Term Ecological Research study that I am assisting with today!

Cara Nelson: Report from the Flying Bridge, September 16, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cara Nelson

Aboard USFWS R/V Tiglax

September 11-25, 2019


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

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently sampling along the Seward line.

Date: September 16, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Time: 16:10
Latitude: 59º36.465’
Longitude: 149º14.346’
Wind: North 12 knots
Air Temperature: 16ºC (61ºF)
Air Pressure: 1001 millibars
Clear skies


Science and Technology Log

The Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) study focuses on ecosystem dynamics in the Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) and how the complex processes of abiotic factors, such as ocean salinity, temperature, currents, and trace metals influence primary productivity of phytoplankton.  The project examines how efficiently this energy is transferred, in turn, to higher trophic levels, from zooplankton to vertebrates, such as fish, seabirds and marine mammals. 

Over the past twenty years, seabird and marine mammal observations have been an important component of the LTER study. Approximately 50 species of birds inhabit the NGA either year-round or seasonally, with a variety of foraging behaviors and diets. Through the LTER, we can learn about how physical and biological oceanographic processes influence the distribution and abundance of higher trophic levels, such as seabirds.

Dr. Kathy Kuletz with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is the lead scientist for the seabird part of the research program. Dan Cushing is the seabird and marine mammal observer aboard R/V Tiglax.  He holds a master’s degree in wildlife science and has a wealth of experience in birding both on and offshore.  This fall cruise marks Dan’s eleventh cruise observing in the NGA.  Whenever the R/V Tiglax is underway, Dan can be found on the flying bridge collecting data. 

flying bridge
The flying bridge (named for its bird’s eye view) is an open viewing area atop the wheel-house of R/V Tiglax accessed by a ladder.

Observations are made using a protocol established through the USFWS.  Dan records survey data using a computer on the flying bridge that records both time and GPS coordinates of each bird or mammal sighting. 

Dan on flying bridge
Dan actively observing on the flying bridge.
estimating distance
A chopstick with markings on it helps Dan estimate bird distance. Dan made this simple distance measuring tool using high-school trigonometry. When the top of the stick is placed on the horizon, the markings along the stick correspond to distances from the boat.
observing laptop
Dan is able to quickly document the species seen, abundance and any special notes using the computer program.

It is immediately clear that bird sightings along the LTER follow a pattern.  Inshore, diving bird species are common, such as common murres, puffins and cormorants.  Pelagic bird species inhabiting deeper waters are mostly surface-feeders, and rely on processes such as fronts and upwellings at the shelf break to concentrate prey at the surface where feeding occurs.  Albatross, shearwaters and storm-petrels are abundant as we head further out on our sampling lines.  

birds on the dock
Pelagic cormorants and black-legged kittiwakes sit on the dock in Seward prior to our departure.
black-footed albatross
A black-footed albatross. Photo credit: Dan Cushing

Dan’s experience on the LTER study is helpful in that he can comment on both changes he sees from the spring, summer and fall cruises but also over the past several years.  For example, in winter 2015-16, a large die-off event of common murres was observed in Alaska following an extreme warming event called “the blob” in the North Pacific.  The murre die off was due to starvation from lack of forage fish availability.  A question of the LTER study is how is the ocean chemistry, primary production, and zooplankton abundance tied to events such as this. Today, the murre numbers have not completely rebounded in the NGA and other species, such as the short-tailed shearwater are beginning to experience die-offs in the Bristol Bay area.   In addition to shifts in bird populations, fish that frequent warmer waters, have been observed in the NGA, such as the ocean sunfish.  Dan spotted one on this trip along our Middleton line swimming at the surface near a flock of albatross. 

The fall survey is occurring when birds are preparing for harsh winter conditions or long migrations.  We have spotted a few birds already changing to a winter plumage, which can make identification that much more challenging.  As the strong September storms hit us, it is amazing to watch the birds handle the strong winds and driving rain.  Last night as we worked on our nightly plankton tow a gale blew up around us.  The winds picked up to 30 knots and the seas began to build to 10 feet, and the aptly named storm-petrels kept us entertained.  At one point, we turned around and one had accidently gotten to close and seemingly stunned itself by hitting the back deck.  We watched as it shook off the confusion and again took flight into the storm. 

fork-tailed storm petrel
A fork-tailed storm petrel. Photo credit: Dan Cushing

One of the exciting things about Dan’s job and my time observing with him was the sightings of rare and endangered species.  Just off of Cape Cleare, as I sat on the flying bridge with Dan, I heard him exclaim, “no way!” as he grabbed his camera for some shots.  After a few quiet moments, he shared that he had officially has his first sighting a Manx shearwater.  The Manx shearwater has a primary range in the Atlantic Ocean, with rare but regular (1-2 per year) sightings in the NGA.  There currently are no confirmed breeding locations identified in the Pacific Ocean. Every new sighting adds to our limited understanding of this small and mysterious population. Another exciting observation, although more frequent for Dan, was the short-tailed albatross.  This beautiful bird, with its bubble-gum pink bill, is currently critically endangered, with a global population of only about 4000.  The good news is that the population is currently rebounding from extremely low numbers. 

short-tailed albatross
A short-tailed albatross. Picture credit: Dan Cushing

Dan has not only done an amazing job as an observer but also as a teacher.  He has helped me identify the birds as we see them and given me tips on how to hone in on particular species.  In addition to this, he has supplied me with amazing facts about so many of the species, I am in awe of his knowledge, patience and his skill as a seabird and mammal observer.

Cara observing
I am getting better at identifying northern fulmars on a beautiful evening on the flying bridge.


Personal Log

One of the biggest questions I had (as well as my students) prior to my trip, was how would I handle sea sickness.  I must say for a person who used to get sea sick snorkeling, I am thrilled to announce that I am sea sickness free.  After riding through three strong gales with 12+ seas and 35-40 knot winds without any major problems, I think I’m in the clear.  I owe a lot of it to consistent Bonine consumption!

Additionally, I would say I officially have my sea legs on. I have gotten really good at working, walking, eating, typing, and my brushing my teeth in high seas as the boat tosses about.  One of my favorite phrases is when Captain John says, “the seas are going to get a bit snappy.” I asked him what he meant by this and he explained that snappy means the waves are sharp and about 8-12 feet in height in contrast to the swells.  They hit the ship with a snap that causes it to vibrate, rather than just allowing it to slowly roll over them. 

A last thing that has surprised me on this trip so far is the warm weather.  I am typically always cold and was worried about how I would manage working outside on the nightshift in the elements.  The weather, despite intermittent storms has remained surprisingly warm and with our mustang suits and rain gear, we have remained mostly dry.  Almost daily we have had the pleasure of a beautiful ocean sunset, a full moon rising and stars over our heads.  Now we are just crossing our fingers for some northern lights to grace our presence.

sunset
Another sunset over the Northern Gulf of Alaska!


Animals Seen from the Flying Bridge

Mammals:

Fin whale
Humpback whale
Dall’s porpoise
Harbor porpoise
Stellar sea lion
Harbor seal
Sea otter

Birds:

Greater scaup
White-winged scoter
Sandhill crane
Red-necked phalarope
Red phalarope
South polar skua
Pomarine jaeger
Parasitic jaeger
Commone murre
Thick-billed murre
Pigeon guillemot
Marbled murrelet
Ancient murrelet
Parakeet auklet
Horned puffin
Tufted puffin
Black-legged kittiwake
Mew gull
Herring gull
Glaucous-winged gull
Arctic tern
Pacific loon
Common loon
Laysan albatross
Black-footed albatross
Short-tailed albatross
Fork-tailed storm-petrel
Northern fulmar
Buller’s shearwater
Short-tailed shearwater
Sooty shearwater
Flesh-footed shearwater
Manx shearwater
Red-footed booby
Double-crested cormorant
Red-faced cormorant
Pelagic cormorant
Great blue heron
Northern harrier
Bald eagle
Merlin

Cara Nelson: Methot Madness, September 14, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cara Nelson

Aboard USFWS R/V Tiglax

September 11-25, 2019


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

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently sampling in Prince William Sound

Date: September 14, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Time: 16:10
Latitude: 59º19.670’
Longitude: 146º07.196’
Wind: East 5 knots
Air Temperature: 14.5ºC (58ºF)
Air Pressure: 1010 millibars
Clear skies

Science and Technology Log

A Methot net is not your typical plankton net.  This large net hooks to a stainless-steel frame and has a mesh size of 3mm.  Its purpose: large jellyfish collection!  The Methot is unique not only for its size but also in its method of deployment.  The net must be craned off the starboard (right side) of the ship and submerged just under the water.  It is then towed for 20 minutes at the surface. Similar to the smaller plankton nets, there is a “cod-end” bucket that helps collect the jellies as the water filters out of the net. 

Methot net setup
Heidi working to tighten the shackles on one setup for the Methot net.
Methot net setup
Emily helps place the flow meter on the net prior to deployment to measure water flow for quantifying the abundance of organisms caught.

The setup of the Methot is tricky.  The frame that we are using was fabricated locally for these nets so there isn’t a manual for setup and a lot if trial and error is involved in the setup process.  This entails a lot of wrenching on shackles to connect the net to the frame, trying out a setup and then trying again once it is in place and we can watch the positioning and motion of the net in the water.  Fortunately, we have an amazingly positive team so we were able to meet each challenge and come up with a solution.  Our fourth time in resetting the net seems to be the charm.

lowering Methot net
The Methot being craned into the water.
Methot fully extended
The Methot looks like a giant wind sock when it is fully extended in tow next to the ship.

Heidi Islas is our onboard jellyfish guru.  I have never met anyone who loves jellyfish more than Heidi, and this passion and enthusiasm translates directly toward her commitment to her research.  She is currently working on her master’s degree at UAF with Russ Hopcroft as her advisor.  Her specific research thesis is, “the abundance and distribution of gelatinous zooplankton in the Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA).”  Currently there is no baseline data on the type and biomass of the large jellies in the NGA so Heidi’s work is so important in helping identify not only what is present but how these jellies may be playing a role in this ecosystem particularly as predators on small fish. 

Heidi and codend
Heidi is about to open the cod-end where the jellies are trapped at the end of the net. A few of our samples were so full the jellies were up into the net and we needed the assistance of the crane to lift it back onboard.
jelly collection
One of our first collections had only a few but a nice variety of jellies: 2 Lion’s Mane, 1 albino Lion’s Mane, 1 Sea Nettle and 1 Crystal jelly.

Our typical sampling includes running either a Bongo net or Multinet off the stern (back) of the boat to collect zooplankton, and then immediately following we lower the Methot net for its 20-minute tow.  One of the deckhands, either Dave or Jen, run the crane for us, while the four of us help move and position the net into and out of the water.  At the end of the tow, we hose down the net and then open the cod-end to see what we have collected.  Our first few tows had only a few jellies but a little more variety.  Last night however, as we moved into deeper water south of Middleton island, we had a large number of jellies to process.  We assist Heidi in measuring the diameter of bells of the jellies, as well as collecting volume and mass measurements.  We then preserve any zooplankton and fish we collect for analysis by fisheries scientists back in the lab. 

measuring jellies
Emily assists Heidi in measuring and massing the jellies.
Heidi and Cara and jelly
Even though it is 3am, Heidi and I are pretty excited about our sample of Crystal jellies.

Many people might ask, why should we care about the jellyfish?  It all comes back to the food web connectivity.  For example, it is known that jellies will feed on smaller zooplankton, such as copepods and euphausiids (krill), but also on fish larvae, such as pollock.  The commercial pollock fishery is very interested in identifying any factor that may impact the adult pollock numbers.  Additionally, very little is known about what else the jellies are eating, or in what quantity.  So many questions arise about how these jellies might be impacted food availability for other species as well as serving as a food source themselves. 

Russ and worm
Russ examines a polychaete worm that was part of our sample.

Another very interesting piece of research for Heidi apart from her thesis focus is how are jellies responding to climate change.  A current hypothesis was that jellies increase in number during warming events, suggesting that they may become more abundant as our climate changes with even greater impact other species.  In her research on this topic, Heidi came across a paper published in 2013 that challenges this hypothesis.  It demonstrated that jellyfish actually follow a natural cycle of growth and decline with a peak in abundance every 19 years.  Heidi decided to analyze data that NOAA Fisheries had collected over a 38-year period from bottom trawls in the NGA.  She too saw the same cycle emerge.  Although this is exciting data, it leads to many more questions for her to explore. Such as what is driving this cyclic pattern?

giant sea nettle jelly
Emily holds a giant Sea Nettle that actually got trapped in our Bongo net. We measured it before sending it back to sea.

In both the scientific and non-scientific world it is easy to see a correlation of cause and effect and jump to a conclusion.  What I am realizing from the research going on aboard R/V Tiglax is that numerous variables must be considered before true causes can be determined from the data.  This is why collaboration in research is so important.   Physical, chemical and biological oceanographers along with fisheries biologists must work together to gain more holistic view of this NGA ecosystem to help unravel its secrets. 


Personal Log

Fortitude is my word for the past few days.  I have learned so much on this trip so far, including two important pieces of information about myself.  One is that my body does not like to work nights.  The days are blurring together for me as I adjust to my shift work.  I can say that it is definitely not an easy transition because the transition requires more than just adjusting sleep times, but also eating patterns as well.  On Friday night, due to the nature of our stations, we were not able to start our shift work until 1am.  By 5:30 in the morning as we began our last sample, I literally fell asleep on the rales of the ship waiting for our Bongo net to surface.  I think in another day or two, I will have it figured out.

A second piece of information I learned about myself, I am allergic to the scopolamine patch!  Early on Friday, I realized I was developing a rash, which soon spread.  The itching was becoming a problem and so I immediately discontinued an antibiotic I was taking thinking it was the culprit.  After the rash worsened, I then realized it was likely the patch.  After speaking with Captain John, he confirmed that this is a nasty side effect for some people.  I removed the patch Saturday and transitioned back to my usual medicine for motion sickness prevention: Bonine. Unfortunately, 24 hours later, the rash and itching persists.  Russ and John joke that they will be taping my fingers soon, so I better behave. 

After the first storm passed we were lucky enough to have several days of beautiful and surprisingly warm weather as we started along the Middleton line.  I was able to spend time on the fly bridge with Dan birding and mammal monitoring.  I will definitely highlight more on this in a later blog.  From Friday to Saturday I was fortunate enough to watch both amazing sunsets and sunrises as well as enjoy the beauty of the full moon. 

sunset
Sunset over the Northern Gulf of Alaska!

Another storm is forecast to be upon us by late Sunday evening, so our plan is to finish the Middleton line tonight and be in transit to GAK1 (just outside of Resurrection Bay) overnight.  Currently it is calling for East 40 knot winds and 11-13 foot seas.  It should be a fun ride.


Did You Know?

The jellies we are sampling all started out in the benthic (bottom) habitat in what is known as a polyp stage of their life cycle.  These polyps are attached to the bottom and will asexually bud off into the water column.  At this point, the jellies are only approximately a half of a centimeter in size.  It is estimated that it takes approximately a year for the jellies to grow to the full adult medusa stage.  The medusa is the bell-shaped, free floating stage that everyone recognizes as a jellyfish.  This amount of growth requires a lot of energy input, and thus these jellies must feed continuously to reach the adult sizes.  It is not known for sure, but it is estimated that the jellies will spend approximately a year in this phase in which they sexually reproduce.  The larva will then settle back to the benthic environment and start the cycle all over again.

Cara Nelson, The Gales of September, September 12, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cara Nelson

Aboard USFWS R/V Tiglax

September 11-25, 2019


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

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently sampling in Prince William Sound

Date: September 12, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Time: 0830
Latitude: 60º16.073’ N
Longitude: 147º59.608’W
Wind: East, 10 knots – building to 30
Air Temperature: 13ºC (55ºF)
Air Pressure: 1003 millibars
Cloudy, light drizzle

Science and Technology Log

There is a tool for every job and the same holds true for sampling plankton and water in the Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA).  As we sorted, shuffled and assembled equipment yesterday, what struck me the most was the variety of nets and other equipment needed for the different science research being performed as part of the LTER program. 

There are a variety of research disciplines comprising the LTER scientific team aboard the R/V Tiglax, each with their own equipment and need for laboratory space. These disciplines include physical oceanography, biological (phytoplankton and zooplankton), and chemical oceanography along with marine birds and mammal.  Their equipment has been transported from University of Alaska Fairbanks, as well as Western Washington University to the remote town of Seward AK and subsequently transferred to the ship before it could be either set up or stored away in the hold for later use.  Logistics is an important part of any research mission.

Immediately, it was obvious that some of the primary equipment on the ship, used for almost all the water sampling and plankton tows, require frequent maintenance in order to maintain function.  The winch for instance needed rewiring at port before we could depart. Winch runs the smart wire cable that allows the scientists to talk real time to the equipment (e.g., CTD and MultiNet).

v
The deck full of boxes being unpacked and stored away, as well as the winch pulled apart for rewiring

One of the most complex pieces of equipment and the workhorse of all oceanographic cruises, the CTD, takes a good deal of time to set up as well properly interface with the computers in the lab for real-time data communication.  A CTD, which stands for conductivity, temperature and depth, is a piece of equipment that accurately measures the salinity and water temperature at different depths.  The CTD is actually only a small portion of the device shown below.

CTD prep
The CTD is being put together and wired before departure.
CTD output
Temperature (blue line) salinity (red line) and fluorescence (chlorophyll) are transmitted and graphed on the computer as the CTD is lowered and raised.


The main gray bottles visible in a ring around the top are called Niskin bottles. These bottles are used to collect water samples and can be fired from the lab computer to close and seal water in at the desired depth.  These water samples are used by the team to examine both chlorophyll (abundance of phytoplankton) as well as nutrients.  As a side note, if these bottles are not reopened when the CTD is sent back down the pressure can cause the bottles to implode.  Two bottles were lost this way at our second station this morning, luckily spares were available onboard!

One bottle shattered from the pressure (on the right) and in the process, broke the neighboring bottle.

On the bottom of the CTD, there are several important sensors.  One is for nitrates and another for dissolved oxygen.  Additionally, there is a laser that detects particle size in the water, aiding in identifying plankton.  Much of this data is being fed to the computers but will not be analyzed until the scientists return the lab at the end of the cruise. 

A big decision had to be made before departing Seward late in the evening on the 11th.  A gale warning is in effect for the NGA with 30+ knot winds and high seas.  After several meetings between the chief scientists and the captain, it was determined to forego the typical sampling along GAK1 and the Seward line and head immediately to Prince William Sound (PWS) to escape the brunt of the storm. 

After getting underway late in the evening on Wednesday, the 11th, we stopped at a station called Res 2.5 in Resurrection Bay.  This station is used to test the CTD before heading out.  Just as with any complicated equipment it takes time to work out the glitches.  For example, it is imperative to have the CTD lower and raise at a particular rate of speed for consistent results and speed and depth sensor were not initially reading correctly.  Additionally, the winch continued to give a little trouble until all the kinks were worked out close to midnight. With a night focused on transiting to PWS, sampling was put on hold until this morning.


Personal Log

There are three F’s to remember when working aboard a NOAA research vessel: Flexibility, Fortitude and Following orders.  Flexibility was the word for everyone to focus on the first day.  I was immediately impressed with how everyone was able to adjust schedules based on equipment issues, coordination with other researchers on equipment loading and storage and most of all the weather.

Yesterday, there was help needed everywhere, so I was able to lend a hand with the moving and sorting and eventually assembly of some of our equipment.  The weather was beautiful in Seward as we worked in the sunshine on the deck, knowing that a gale was brewing and would follow us on our exit from Resurrection Bay.  Helping put together the variety of nets we are going to be able to use during our night shift, gave me time to ask our team a lot of questions.  I am amazed at how open and willing the entire team is to teach me every step of the way.  I am feverishly taking notes and pictures to take it all in.

Orientation and safety are also a big part of the first day on a new ship.  Dan, the first mate, gave us a rundown of the rules and regulations for R/V Tiglax along with a tour of the ship.  We ended on the deck with a practice drill and getting into our survival suits in case of a ship evacuation. 

survival suit practice
The new crew practices with their survival suits: Emily, Jake, Kira and Cara
Cara in survival suit
Although it has been a few years, I was able to don my survival suit pretty quickly.

Adjusting to a night time schedule will be one of my greatest challenges.  Usually we work the first night but we had a break due to the weather so we were able to put off our first nighttime sampling until Thursday night.  Everyone on the night crew has a different technique to adjust their body clock.  My plan was to stay up as late as possible and then rise early.  Last night however, between the ship noise and the rocking back & forth in the high seas during our transit from Seward to Knight Island passage, I did not sleep well.  Hopefully this will inspire a nap so I can wake refreshed for our first night shift. 

When I awoke this morning at 06:00, we had entered the sheltered waters of Knight Island passage. with calm seas and a light drizzle, ready to start a full day of collection.  I was able to watch the first plankton tows with the CalVet for the daytime zooplankton team with Kira Monell and Russ Hopcroft. Additionally, I made my rounds up to the fly bridge where Dan Cushing monitors for seabirds and mammals while we are underway.  I will share details of these experiences in the coming days.

For now, it is time for lunch and my power nap.


Did You Know:

There are a wide variety of plankton sampling nets each with a unique design to capture the desired type and size of plankton.  To name a few we will be using: Bongo nets, Mutlinets (for vertical and horizontal towing), Methot trawl nets, and CalVet nets.  As I get to assist with each one of these nets, I will highlight them in my blog to give you a better idea what they look like and how they work.

Cara Nelson: A Birthday Gift to Remember, September 5, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cara Nelson

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – September 26, 2019


MissionNorthern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program.

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska (Port: Seward)

Date: September 5, 2019

Weather Data from Bartlett High School Student Meteorologist Jack Pellerin

Time: 0730
Latitude: 61.2320° N
Longitude: 149.7334° W
Wind: Northwest, 2 mph
Air Temperature: 11oC (52oF)
Air pressure: 30.14 in
Partly cloudy, no precipitation


Personal Introduction

On September 10th, I enter my 46th year on this amazing planet, and on the 11th, I depart on a trip that will be a birthday gift to remember. I will be departing Seward on U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s R/V Tiglax to assist in the Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research study. To understand why I am so excited about this trip, I have to rewind about 30 years.

On March 24th, 1989, I watched in shock, along with the world, as the oil from Exxon Valdez swept across Prince William Sound. I was a 15-year old budding scientist learning about the importance of baseline data for ecosystems.  I didn’t know how, but I envisioned myself someday assisting in science research for this beautiful ecosystem. I dreamt of the day I would end up in Alaska and experience the Pacific Ocean.

In 2006, I was fortunate to be offered a teaching position in Cordova, Alaska on Prince William Sound where I became an oceanography and marine biology teacher.  I was in awe of the ocean and what it had to teach myself and my students. Having the ocean at our front door made hands on learning in the field possible each and every week.  We were also fortunate enough to partner with the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Sycamore for a marine science field trip each year along with scientists from the Prince William Sound Science Center and U.S. Forest Service. 

zooplankton sample
Showing zooplankton to a U.S. Coast Guard crew member after a plankton tow. Photo Credit: Allen Marquette

Since 2017, I have been teaching at Bartlett High School (BHS) in Anchorage School District.  I again have the opportunity to teach oceanography and marine biology and I am thrilled.  Although we live only a few miles away, many of my students have not yet seen the ocean.  It is so important for me to make learning relevant to their lives and their locality. As much as we can incorporate Alaska and their cultures into the lessons the better.

Here are just a few snapshots from our classroom:

BHS marine biology students
Students in my BHS marine biology class learn to make sushi during a lesson on seaweed uses.
BHS marine biology students
BHS marine biology students examine zooplankton during the Kenai Fjords Marine Science Explorers program in Resurrection Bay.
BHS marine biology students
Students in my BHS marine biology class operating mini-ROVs they built to complete an underwater rescue mission.

In a few days, I will begin my two-week mission to assist in important science research in Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) and I feel like my 30-year old dream has come true. I will be participating in the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) study, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). 

This cruise will be the third survey for the 2019 season for this area and the 23rd consecutive season for sampling along the Seward Line.  The goal of the NGA-LTER program is to evaluate the ecosystem in terms of its productivity and its resiliency in the face of extreme seasonal variations and long term climate change.  The mission entails doing a variety of water and plankton sampling at different stations along four transect lines in the NGA, as well as a circuit within Prince William Sound.  

sampling station map
The NGA-LTER sampling stations. Image Credit: Russ Hopcroft

I will be sailing aboard R/V Tiglax (pictured below) which is the Aleut word for eagle and is pronounced TEKL-lah.  My primary mission is to assist on the night shift with the collection of zooplankton at each station.  In addition to this, I look forward to learning as much as I can about the other work being done, including water chemistry, nutrient sampling, phytoplankton collection and analysis, and seabird and mammal surveys.  As a NOAA Teacher at Sea, I am tasked with creating lesson plans that connect this science research to my classroom.  My goal is to develop lessons that will help my students understand the importance of whole systems monitoring, as well as the important connections between ocean water properties, microfauna and megafauna. 

R/V Tiglax
R/V Tiglax. Photo Credit: Robin Corcoran USFWS

When I am not in my classroom, I like to be outside as much as possible.  I enjoy hiking, backpacking and spending time with my family on our remote property in Bristol Bay. 

Crow Pass Trail
My husband and I getting ready to backpack Crow Pass Trail , part of the historic Iditarod Trail.

My husband and I also like to travel outside of Alaska whenever possible during the winter months and see the world.  One of our favorite trips was completing a full transit of the Panama Canal.  This winter break we will be headed to the barrier reef in Belize to experience the beautiful tropical ocean. 

Panama Canal
Transiting the Panama Canal on Christmas Day on our honeymoon.

I tell my students we have researched and explored more of space than we have of our own ocean.

Cara at Space Camp
Participating in Space Camp Academy during my tenure as 2012 Alaska Teacher of the Year.

I am so excited to be working to help change that statistic!

Teacher at Sea Cara Nelson
I am honored to be a NOAA Teacher at Sea.


Did You Know?

This summer has broken many records in Alaska for warm dry weather and Southcentral has been in an official drought.  How will this impact ocean temperatures out in the NGA and will we see evidence in the plankton or other organisms we examine? 

Stay tuned to my blog and I will let you know the answer to this as well as so much more!

Katie Gavenus, Bonus Blog: MIXOTROPHS, May 5, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Katie Gavenus

Aboard R/V Tiglax

April 26 – May 9, 2019

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

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

Date: May 5, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

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

 

Science and Technology Log

I was going to just fold the information about mixotrophs into the phytoplankton blog, but this is so interesting it deserves its own separate blog!

On land, there are plants that photosynthesize to make their own food. These are called autotrophs – self-feeding.  And there are animals that feed on other organisms for food – these are called heterotrophs – other-feeding.  In the ocean, the same is generally assumed.  Phytoplankton, algae, and sea grasses are considered autotrophs because they photosynthesize.  Zooplankton, fish, birds, marine mammals, and benthic invertebrates are considered heterotrophs because they feed on photosynthetic organisms or other heterotrophs.  They cannot make their own food.  But it turns out that the line between phytoplankton and zooplankton is blurry and porous.  It is in this nebulous area that mixotrophs take the stage!

Mixotrophs are organisms that can both photosynthesize and feed on other organisms.  There are two main strategies that lead to mixotrophy.  Some organisms, such as species of dinoflagellate called Ceratium, are inherently photosynthetic.  They have their own chloroplasts and use them to make sugars.  But, when conditions make photosynthesis less favorable or feeding more advantageous, these Ceratium will prey on ciliates and/or bacteria.  Bacteria are phosphorous, nitrogen, and iron rich so it is beneficial for Ceratium to feed on them at least occasionally. Microscopy work makes it possible to see the vacuole filled with food inside the photosynthetic Ceratium. 

illustration of mixotrophic dinoflagellate Ceratium
I created this drawing after viewing a number of microscopy photos of the mixotrophic dinoflagellate Ceratium under different lights and stains. This artistic rendition combines those different views to show the outside structure of the dinoflagellate as well as the nucleus, food vacuole and chloroplasts. (Drawing by Katie Gavenus)

Other organisms, including many ciliates, were long known to be heterotrophic.  They feed on other organisms, and it is particularly common for them to eat phytoplankton and especially cryptophyte algae. Recent research has revealed, however, that many ciliates will retain rather than digest the chloroplasts from the phytoplankton they’ve eaten and use them to photosynthesize for their own benefit. Viewing these mixotrophs under blue light with a microscope causes the retained chloroplasts to fluoresce.  I saw photos of them and they are just packed with chloroplasts!

illustration of mixotrophic ciliate Tontonia sp.
The mixotrophic ciliate Tontonia sp. eats phytoplankton but retains the chloroplasts from their food in order to photosynthesize on their own! I made this drawing based off of photos, showing both the outside structure of the Tontonia and how the chloroplasts fluoresce as red when viewed with blue light. (Drawing by Katie Gavenus)

Mixotrophs are an important part of the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem.  They may even help to explain how a modestly productive ecosystem (in terms of phytoplankton) can support highly productive upper trophic levels. Mixotrophy can increase the efficiency of energy transfer through the trophic levels, so more of the energy from primary productivity supports the growth and reproduction of upper trophic levels. They also may increase the resiliency of the ecosystem, since these organisms can adjust to variability in light, nutrients, and phytoplankton availability by focusing more on photosynthesis or more on finding prey. Yet little is known about mixotrophs.  Only about one quarter of the important mixotroph species in the Gulf of Alaska have been studied in any way, shape or form!

Researchers are trying to determine what kinds of phytoplankton the mixotrophic ciliates and dinoflagellates are retaining chloroplasts from.  They are also curious whether this varies by location, season or year.  Understanding the conditions in which mixotrophic organisms derive energy from photosynthesis and the conditions in which they choose to feed is another area of research focus, especially because it has important ramifications for carbon and nutrient cycling and productivity across trophic levels.  And it is all very fascinating!

food web illustration
A drawing illustrating a fascinating, tightly linked portion of the Gulf of Alaska food web. Mesodinium rubrum must eat cryptophyte algae (this is called obligate feeding). The Mesodinium rubrum retain the chloroplasts from the cryptophyte algae, using them to supplement their own diet through photosynthesis. In turn, Dinophysis sp. must feed on Mesodinium rubrum. And the Dinophysis retain the chloroplasts from the Mesodinium that originally were from cryptophyte algae! (Drawing by Katie Gavenus)

Did you know?

Well over half of the oxygen on earth comes from photosynthetic organisms in the ocean.  So next time you take a breath, remember to thank phytoplankton, algae, and marine plants!

Personal Log:

Tonight was likely our last full night of work, as we expect rough seas and high winds will roll in around midnight tomorrow and persist until the afternoon before we head back to Seward.  We were able to get bongo net sampling completed at 6 stations along the Kodiak Line, and hope that in the next two nights we can get 2-4 stations done before the weather closes in on us and 2-4 nets on the last evening as we head back to Seward.

Despite our push to get 6 stations finished tonight, we took time to look more closely at one of the samples we pulled up.  It contained a squid as well as a really cool parasitic amphipod called Phronima that lives inside of a gelatinous type of zooplankton called doliolids.  Check out the photos and videos below for a glimpse of these awesome creatures (I couldn’t figure out how to mute the audio, but I would recommend doing that for a less distracting video experience).

 

 

Phronima
A parasitic Phronima amphipod. This animal typically lives inside doliolids, a type of gelatinous zooplankton. Apparently its body structure and fierce claw-like appendages inspired the design of “Predator.”

 

 

 

 

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

niskin bottles on the rosette

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Katie Gavenus

Aboard R/V Tiglax

April 26 – May 9, 2019

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

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

Date: May 5, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

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

Science and Technology Log

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Log

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

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

Did You Know?

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

Question of the Day:

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

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

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

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

Katie Gavenus: Thinking Like A Hungry Bird, April 28, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Katie Gavenus

Aboard R/V Tiglax

April 26-May 9, 2019

 

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

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently on the ‘Middleton [Island] Line’

Date: April 28, 2019

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time: 1715
Latitude: 59o 39.0964’ N
Longitude: 146o05.9254’ W
Wind: Southeast, 15 knots
Air Temperature: 10oC (49oF)
Air pressure: 1034 millibars
Cloudy, no precipitation

 

Science and Technology Log

Yesterday was my first full day at sea, and it was a special one! Because each station needs to be sampled both at night and during the day, coordinating the schedule in the most efficient way requires a lot of adjustments. We arrived on the Middleton Line early yesterday afternoon, but in order to best synchronize the sampling, the decision was made that we would wait until that night to begin sampling on the line. We anchored near Middleton Island and the crew of R/V Tiglax ferried some of us to shore on the zodiac (rubber skiff).

This R&R trip turned out to be incredibly interesting and relevant to the research taking place in the LTER. An old radio tower on the island has been slowly taken over by seabirds… and seabird scientists. The bird biologists from the Institute for Seabird Research and Conservation have made modifications to the tower so that they can easily observe, study, and band the black-legged kittiwakes and cormorants that choose to nest on the shelfboards they’ve augmented the tower with. We were allowed to climb up into the tower, where removable plexi-glass windows look out onto each individual pair’s nesting area. This early in the season, the black-legged kittiwakes are making claims on nesting areas but have not yet built nests. Notes written above each window identified the birds that nested there last season, and we were keen to discern that many of the pairs had returned to their spot.

Gavenus1Birds
Black-legged kittiwakes are visible through the observation windows in the nesting tower on Middleton Island.

Gavenus2Birds
Nesting tower on Middleton Island.

The lead researcher on the Institute for Seabird Research and Conservation (ISRC) project was curious about what the LTER researchers were finding along the Middleton Line stations. He explained that the birds “aren’t happy” this spring and are traveling unusually long distances and staying away for multiple days, which might indicate that these black-legged kittiwakes are having trouble finding high-quality, accessible food. In particular, he noted that he hasn’t seen any evidence they’ve been consuming the small lantern fish (myctophids) that generally are an important and consistent food source from them in the spring. These myctophids tend to live offshore from Middleton Island and migrate to the surface at night. We’ll be sampling some of that area tonight, and I am eager to see if we might catch any in the 0.5 mm mesh ‘bongo’ nets that we use to sample zooplankton at each station.

The kittiwakes feed on myctophids. The myctophids feed on various species of zooplankton. The zooplankton feed on phytoplankton, or sometimes microzooplankton that in turn feeds on phytoplankton. The phytoplankton productivity is driven by complex interactions of environmental conditions, impacted by factors such as light availability, water temperature and salinity as well as the presence of nutrients and trace metals. And these water conditions are driven by abiotic factors – such as currents, tides, weather, wind, and freshwater input from terrestrial ecosystems – as well as the biotic processes that drive the movement of carbon, nutrients, and metals through the ecosystem.

Scientists deploy CTD
This CTD instrument and water sampling rosette is deployed at each station during the day to collect information about temperature and salinity. It also collects water that is analyzed for dissolved oxygen, nitrates, chlorophyll, dissolved inorganic carbon, dissolved organic carbon, and particulates.

CTD at sunset
When the sun sets, the CTD gets a break, and the night crew focuses on zooplankton.

Part of the work of the LTER is to understand the way that these complex factors and processes influence primary productivity, phytoplankton, and the zooplankton community structure. In turn, inter-annual or long-term changes in phytoplankton and zooplankton community structure likely have consequences for vertebrates in and around the Gulf of Alaska, like seabirds, fish, marine mammals, and people. In other words, zooplankton community structure is one piece of understanding why the kittiwakes are or are not happy this spring. It seems that research on zooplankton communities requires, at least sometimes, to consider the perspective of a hungry bird.

Peering at a jar of copepods and euphausiids (two important types of zooplankton) we pulled up in the bongo nets last night, I was fascinated by the way they look and impressed by the amount of swimming, squirming life in the jar. My most common question about the plankton is usually some variation of “Is this …” or “What is this?” But the questions the LTER seeks to ask are a little more complex.

Considering the copepods and euphausiids, these researchers might ask, “How much zooplankton is present for food?” or “How high of quality is this food compared to what’s normal, and what does that mean for a list of potential predators?” or “How accessible and easy to find is this food compared to what’s normal, and what does that mean for a list of potential predators?” They might also ask “What oceanographic conditions are driving the presence and abundance of these particular zooplankton in this particular place at this particular time?” or “What factors are influencing the life stage and condition of these zooplankton?”

Euphausiids
Euphausiids (also known as krill) are among the types of zooplankton we collected with the bongo nets last night.

Copepods in a jar
Small copepods are among the types of zooplankton we collected with the bongo nets last night.

As we get ready for another night of sampling with the bongo nets, I am excited to look more closely at the fascinating morphology (body-shape) and movements of the unique and amazing zooplankton species. But I will also keep in mind some of the bigger picture questions of how these zooplankton communities simultaneously shape, and are shaped by, the dynamic Gulf of Alaska ecosystem. Over the course of the next 3 blogs, I plan to focus first on zooplankton, then zoom in to primary production and phytoplankton, and finally dive more into nutrients and oceanographic characteristics that drive much of the dynamics in the Gulf of Alaska.

 

Personal Log 

Life on the night shift requires a pretty abrupt change in sleep patterns. Last night, we started sampling around 10 pm and finished close to 4 am. To get our bodies more aligned with the night schedule, the four of us working night shift tried to stay up for another hour or so. It was just starting to get light outside when I headed to my bunk. Happily, I had no problem sleeping until 2:30 this afternoon! I’m hoping that means I’m ready for a longer night tonight, since we’ll be deploying the bongo nets in deeper water as we head offshore along the Middleton Line.

WWII shipwreck
While on Middleton Island, we marveled at a WWII shipwreck that has been completely overtaken by seabirds for nesting.

Shipwreck filled with plants
Inputs of seabird guano, over time, have fertilized the growth of interesting lichens, mosses, grasses, and even shrubs on the sides and top of the rusty vessel.

 

Did You Know?

Imagine you have a copepod that is 0.5 mm long and a copepod that is 1.0 mm long. Because the smaller copepod is half as big in length, height, and width, overall that smaller copepod at best offers only about 1/8th as much food for a hungry animal. And that assumes that it is as calorie-dense as the larger copepod.

 

Question of the Day:

Are PCBs biomagnifying in top marine predators in the Gulf of Alaska? Are there resident orca populations in Alaska that are impacted in similar ways to the Southern Resident Orca Whale population [in Puget Sound] (by things like toxins, noise pollution, and decreasing salmon populations? Is it possible for Southern Resident Orca Whales to migrate and successfully live in the more remote areas of Alaska? Questions from Lake Washington Girl’s Middle School 6th grade science class.

These are great questions! No one on board has specific knowledge of this, but they have offered to put me in contact with researchers that focus on marine mammals, and orcas specifically, in the Gulf of Alaska. I’ll keep you posted when I know more!

Mark Van Arsdale: Modeling the Ocean, September 24, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 24, 2018

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

30 knot easterly winds, rain, waves to eight feet

60.20 N, 147.57 W (Prince William Sound)

 

Science Log 

Modeling the Ocean

During the last two weeks, scientists aboard the Tiglax will have done over 60 CTD casts, 60 zooplankton tows, measured over one thousand jellies caught Methot Net tows, and collected hundreds of water and chlorophyll samples. What happens with all of this data when we get back?   The short answer is a lot more work. Samples have to be analyzed, plankton have to be counted and measured, DNA analysis work has to be done, and cohesive images of temperature, salinity, and nutrients have to be stitched together from the five different transects.

Preparing for another CTD cast. More than 60 CTD casts were made during our cruise.
Preparing for another CTD cast. More than 60 CTD casts were made during our cruise.

Much of this data will eventually be entered into a computer model.  I’ve spent a great deal of time talking with one of the scientists on aboard about how models can be used to answer essential scientific questions about how the Gulf of Alaska works.  Take Neocalanus, the copepods we collected yesterday, for example.  A scientist could ask the question, what factors determine a good versus bad year for Neocalanus?  Or what are the downstream effects on a copepod species of an anomalous warming event like “the blob” of 2014-2015? A model allows you to make predictions based on certain parameters. You can run numerous scenarios, all with different possible variables, in very short periods of time. A model won’t ever predict the future, but it can help a scientist understand the “rules” that govern how the system works.  But a model is only as good as its baseline assumptions, and those assumptions require the collection of real world data.  A computer doesn’t know how fast Neocalanus grows under optimal or sub-optimal conditions unless you tell it, and to tell it, a scientist has to first measure it.

The fishing industry is a billion-dollar piece of the Alaskan economy.  The ocean is getting warmer and more acidic.  Food webs are shifting, and the abundance and distribution of the species we depend upon are changing as a result.  Using models may allow us to better predict what sustainable levels of fish catches will be as conditions in the Gulf of Alaska change.

I also asked the scientists on board about the future of oceanography in light of the advancements in autonomous unmanned vehicles.  Do you still need to send people out to sea when sending a Slocum Glider or Saildrone can collect data much cheaper than a ship filled with twenty scientists?  The answer I got was, “No, at best these technologies will enhance but not replace what we do at sea.  There will always be a place for direct scientific observations.”  We still need oceanographers at sea.

In twenty-one years of teaching I have had lots students go on to be doctors, PA’s, nurses, micro-biologists, geneticists, and a variety of other scientific occupations, but no oceanographers.  I guess I still have some work to do.

Personal Log

The Weather Finally Gets Us

We have had a few showers, bits of wind and waves, but the weather has been remarkably good for a cruise through the North Gulf of Alaska in late September.  This morning, during the night shift the winds started to blow, it started to rain, and the waves came up. When I went to bed around six AM, the wind was blowing thirty knots, and when I woke up at eleven, it was pushing up some pretty rough seas.  Things got really crazy after lunch.  The winds were being channeled right down Night Island Passage and all work was put to a stop.  I retired to my bunk to read, unable to even go outside and take look.  They eventually battened down the hatches; and we changed course to go hide in a bay sheltered from the wind. (Yes, they really do say batten down the hatches.)

By dinner time decisions were made to not work for the night.  It looked better where we were, but the stations we needed to sample were exposed to winds that were still blowing.  No zooplankton sampling for the night meant that it was time to start washing, disassembling, and drying nets.  We used seventeen different nets to sample zooplankton during the course of this trip and all of them needed to be washed and cared for before they got packed up.

Plankton nets hanging to dry (oceanographer laundry.)
Plankton nets hanging to dry (oceanographer laundry.)

Tomorrow we will begin the journey home with two stations un-sampled.  The storm kept us from getting to the last stations, and another storm is just a few days away. Once the decision was made, I think we were all relieved to be heading in.  Doing oceanography is hard work, and being away from lives, work, and family for such extended periods of time is tough.  Some of the scientists on board have spent as much as six or eight weeks at sea this year.  Having been out here for two weeks, I now understand what commitment that takes.

Unless something really interesting happens tomorrow, this will be my last blog.  This trip has been personally challenging, but a rich experience, and I believe it will be formative to my teaching.  I have learned a great deal about oceanography in general, and the Gulf of Alaska in particular.  The Gulf of Alaska is a magical place.  There is life almost everywhere you look.  More than anything I will leave with a deep impression of the dedication that scientists give to the accuracy and integrity of their work.

[Postscript:  Zooplankton and jelly work was done, so I was able to spend the entire last day on the flying bridge.  There was a good amount of swell from the previous day’s storm, but the sun and scenery made it an enjoyable trip back to Seward.  As we left Prince William Sound we were greeted by an abundance of seabirds that had been blown into the Sound by the weather.  On that day, we documented almost as many species as the rest of the trip combined.  We also got to watch a large group of orcas patrolling the area around Danger Island at the entrance to the Sound.  We made our way back to GAK1.  If the weather allows, GAK1 is always sampled at the beginning and ending of any trip.  The weather was beautiful, Bear Glacier and the entrance to Resurrection Bay was alive with color, and I was going home.  It was a great day.]

Views of the southern coast of the Kenai Peninsula as we traveled from Prince William Sound back to Seward.
Views of the southern coast of the Kenai Peninsula as we traveled from Prince William Sound back to Seward.

Animals seen today

  • Sea otters
  • Fewer birds today, bald eagles, kittiwakes, gulls

Mark Van Arsdale: Waking up Copepods, September 23, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 23, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

Variable winds, partially cloudy, calm seas

60.20 N, 147.57 W (Prince William Sound)

 

Science Log

Waking Up Copepods

One of the scientists on board is interested in the life cycles of a particular species of Neocalanus copepod. Neocalanus is a remarkable looking copepod.  They have long antennae with feathered forks at the ends. They have striking red-orange stripes on their bodies and antennae that reminds you a bit of a candy cane. Neocalanus is an important copepod in the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem, and it typically makes up the largest portion of zooplankton biomass in the spring.

Neocalanus cristatus, photo credit Russ Hopcroft, UAF
Neocalanus cristatus, photo credit Russ Hopcroft, UAF

Its life cycle is interesting.  If zooplankton were cars, the Neocalanus might be a Toyota Prius.  It’s not fast or fancy, but it’s efficient.  Neocalanus copepods feast in the spring and early summer and then settle down several hundred meters below the surface to enter into a diapause state.  Diapause is a kind of dormancy that involves slowing basic metabolic functions to near zero.  It is a strategy used by other Alaskan arthropods, most notably mosquitos, to survive long winters.  As for why they travel deep into the water column, the answer seems to be that they use less energy in the dark, cold, high pressure waters at depth.  Inside the Neocalanus there is an unmistakable large, sausage shaped sack of oil that should provide the energy reserves needed to survive prolonged diapause.

When the Neocalanus females wake up, they have to restart their metabolism and begin meiotic development of their oocytes (egg cells.) They have previously mated and they store the male’s sperm within their bodies during diapause.  Each of these biological events involves turning on several dozen genes.  What our scientist wants to know is what genes get turned on, in what order, and what environmental clues tell the initial genes to start making RNA. To study all of this, she needs living copepods in diapause.  Our collection process inevitably wakes them up, but it gives her a time zero for observing this transformation.  For the next twelve hours, she separated and preserved copepods every hour for later genetic analysis that may give her insight into when genes turn on and in what order as the copepods wake up.

In order to get her copepods, the night team did a vertical Multi-net tow at four AM.  We dropped the Multi-net down to a depth of 740 meters. The work we were doing was sensitive, as she needed the copepods alive and undamaged.  I was glad to have slept a few hours as we were moving between sampling stations, because what came up in the tow was pretty amazing.  Along with the Neocalanus, there were many other types of zooplankton including the copepod MetridiaMetridia produce an intense bioluminescence when disturbed. When we brought the nets to the surface, the cod ends were glowing electric blue and individual copepods could be seen producing pinpricks of light that were remarkably bright.

Bioluminescence is ubiquitous amongst deep sea species.  Deep sea fishes, jellies, and plankton use it to attract prey, to camouflage their silhouette, to surprise and distract predators, and likely to communicate with members of the opposite sex.  The deep oceans make up 95% of biological habitat on Earth.  If you consider bioluminescence communication a kind of language, it may be the most commonly spoken language on the planet.

Luciferin production and luciferase transcription in the bioluminescent copepod Metridia lucens. Michael Tessler et al (2018)

Personal Log

Protected Waters

Knight Island Passage, Prince William Sound
Knight Island Passage, Prince William Sound

Waking up in Prince William Sound today felt good.  I was closer to home this morning than at any time since leaving Seward.  The Sound feels comfortable and protected.  Should bad weather come up, and it sounds like it will tomorrow, there are hundreds of sheltered bays to hide in.

Chenega Glacier, Icy Bay, Prince William Sound.
Chenega Glacier, Icy Bay, Prince William Sound.

Prince William Sound’s beauties are hard to describe without sounding cliché.  Most striking of all are the large tidewater glaciers.  In the evening, we made our way to Chenga Glacier, to do CTD cast.  It was a quite a sight, as were the three hundred harbor seals hauled out on the floating ice in front of the glacier.

These glaciers directly shape the ecosystem of the Sound.  They provide a large freshwater input that is high in trace minerals, while creating pockets of cold water, which serve as micro-climates within the larger area.  These glaciers are melting at incredible rates, and freshwater inputs are greater than they have been at any time since the last ice age.  Sampling stations that were once near the face of the Chenga and Columbia Glaciers are now miles away from their quickly receding faces. Click here to watch the satellite images of Columbia’s retreat.  This ecosystem is changing, and only through long term ecological monitoring will we know exactly how or what it means.

The completion of the road to the town of Whittier has also changed the Sound.  It’s late September, and most pleasure boaters have stowed their boats for the winter, but the number of boats and people coming into the sound to fish, hunt, and sight see has increased dramatically.  Many Alaskans have come to recognize the coastal gem that lays just seventy miles and one long tunnel through the mountain from Anchorage.

Columbia Glacier 1986 (left) 2011 (right). Image from https://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view.php?id=78657
Columbia Glacier 1986 (left) 2011 (right). Image from https://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view.php?id=78657

 

Animals seen today

  • Lots of harbor seals near Chenega Glacier
  • Sea otters
  • Fewer birds today, mergansers, Kittlitz’s murlets, mew gulls, goldeneyes,

 

 

Mark Van Arsdale: Marine Debris, September 22, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 22, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

Southeast wind to 20 knots, rain showers, 6-8 with occasional 12 feet seas

59.913 N, 144.321 W (Kayak Island)

 

Science Log

Marine Debris

The wind came up a bit today, and so did the waves, but we are far enough ahead of schedule that the captain and head scientist decided we should take a two-hour excursion to Kayak Island before taking the eighteen-hour trip into Prince William Sound.  The Tiglax has a pretty deep draft, and the waters surround Kayak Island are shallow, so the boat was anchored about a mile off shore.  The waves were pretty mellow when we departed and it was a pleasant zodiac ride to shore.

The ocean side of Kayak Island is as remote as you can get, but it is covered with human trash. Marine debris is not new, fishing lines, nets, and glass floats have been washing up on beaches for hundreds of years, but the issue changed with the advent of plastics in the 1950’s.  Plastic is buoyant, supremely durable, and absolutely ubiquitous in modern human society.

The beach we walked on faces the ocean and the intense energy of winter storms was obvious.  There were logs thrown up to the high tide of the beach that were nearly four feet in diameter.  The rocks on the beach were polished, rubbed free of their edges.  Driftwood pieces were sanded smooth by the energetic action of waves smashing against rocks.  There were all kinds of interesting things to discover, including fresh bear tracks and some rather large piles of scat.  But more than anything else, there was plastic.  Plastic bottles, plastic fishing floats, fishing line, and wide variety of other refuse.  Some of it below the high tide line, and much of it thrown far back into the dense alder and salmon berry bushes above the high tide line.  Labels and lettering indicated much of the debris was from Asia.  Some of it may have been debris from the large tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, but much of it was just fishing gear lost during ordinary storms or accidents.

The Kuroshio Current
The Kuroshio Current

So how does fishing gear from Taiwan or Japan end up on a remote Alaskan beach?  Currents is the simple answer, specifically, the Kuroshio Current that flows towards the northeast from Japan.  The Kuroshio Current is a swift moving, warm water current, and it pushes debris into the North Pacific Gyre.  A Gyre is clockwise moving merry-go-round of ocean moved by the rotation of the Earth around its axis and by the prevailing winds.  Much of the debris from Asia gets trapped in that Gyre and coalesces into a floating soup of trash known as the Great Pacific Garbage patch. Some of that debris ends up washing ashore on the islands of Northwestern Hawaiian Archipelago, and some of it takes a left-hand turn, getting caught up in the counterclockwise movements of the Gulf of Alaska Current.  Kayak Island sticks out into the Gulf of Alaska like a hitchhiker’s thumb, and does a good job of catching floating debris.

Kayak Island Alaska
Kayak Island Alaska

Marine debris is more than a problem of unsightly litter.  Fishing gear lost in the water keeps on fishing, catching fish, birds, and sea turtles.  Plastic breaks apart into smaller pieces and ends up in the bellies of seabirds, turtles, marine mammals, and fish.  It’s not uncommon to find dead sea birds in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands with bellies completely filled with human trash.  Seabirds don’t consciously eat plastic, but in lower light conditions floating plastic can look like squid or krill.  To a hungry sea turtle, plastic bags and bottles can look like floating jellies and may clog the digestive system of an animal that eats them.  Plastics also concentrate potentially toxic organic chemicals that can work their way up the food chain into the fish and seafood that we eat.

Much to the annoyance of the crew, we picked up some of the larger floats and brought them on board the Tiglax. Larger efforts have been organized to do summer clean-up work on the outer islands of the Prince William Sound, but their efforts are a drop in a very large bucket.  The problem of plastic debris is enormous and in desperate need of a global solution.

Marine debris, Kayak Island.
Marine debris, Kayak Island.

Marine debris, Kayak Island.
Marine debris, Kayak Island.

Marine debris, Kayak Island.
Marine debris, Kayak Island.

Marine debris, Kayak Island.
Marine debris, Kayak Island.

Personal Log

Big Wave Riders

A rainbow visible as we left Kayak Island.
A rainbow visible as we left Kayak Island.

It doesn’t take long for waves to build in the Gulf of Alaska.  Within an hour and a half, the waves had risen to six feet with occasional ten foot monsters cresting just off the beach.  You could see white caps and even a mile away on the beach you could see the Tiglax bobbing up and down.  Marin, our ever-calm skiff driver, told us in a pleasant voice that the ride would be a little bumpy and that we might be “uncomfortable.”  In reality, it was a harrowing fifteen minutes that seemed to take much longer. I was sitting in front of the zodiac and was thrown several feet in the air more than once as we crested waves much larger than our boat. While on the beach I had discovered an intact 500-watt red lightbulb, used as a squid attractor by fishermen in Asia.  We had seen some of these floating on the surface the last few days, and to me it was the perfect piece of marine debris to take back to my classroom.  Unfortunately, that meant I was riding the bucking bronco that was our zodiac with a very fragile piece of glass in my left hand.  As I was getting air going over each wave, I was very conscious of the potential laceration I was risking to my hand or worse to the rubber zodiac.  Somehow we made it back to the boat, light bulb intact.  For the last two weeks, the Tiglax has grown to feel quite small, even confining, but as we approached the boat it seemed gigantic, dwarfing our skiff with its large steel hull crashing up and down in the waves like a giant hammer.  We tossed our bow line to the crew waiting on the back deck and they held us marginally in place as each of us timed our climb up a safety line with a rising wave.  “Don’t jump, take it slow, wait for the next wave if you need to,” said the captain.  The three other passengers on the zodiac did just as instructed.  The last passenger out, I grabbed the safety line with my right hand, but was unable to climb because of the glass treasure in my left hand. I jumped, skidding onto the back deck as if it was home plate, light bulb still in my left hand.

[Postscript: That lightbulb survived a trip across the Pacific Ocean, washing ashore on a rocky beach, and a trip to the Tiglax by a possibly foolish collector.  However, it only survived 24 hours in my classroom, smashed by an unknown student while I was visiting the bathroom.  Just so you know, high school students are rougher than the Pacific Ocean.]

Red Light Bulb Marine Debris
Red Light Bulb Marine Debris

We all managed to get back on board safely.  The experience and training of the crew really showed through.  When asked later if that was crazy, they answered with a casual dismissal, “just another day at the office.”

We got underway in large seas, six to eight feet, with the occasional twelve-footer.  I don’t know the techniques used to calculate such things, but some of those waves were huge.  As we positioned the boat perpendicular to the waves, each dip into a trough sent spray crashing over the bow of the boat.  I went up to the flying bridge, held on tight to a railing, and enjoyed the ride. The waves were wild and beautiful.  The sun occasionally peaked out from the clouds and the seas reflected a diverse assortment of blue and grey hues.

At the end of Kayak Island there stands the sharp cliffs of Point Elias, a lighthouse at its base, and a rock spire called Pinnacle Rock in front of it.  I’ve seen pictures of this place. It’s an iconic Alaskan image.   I felt lucky to be watching it as we rounded the point and headed into Prince William Sound for the last leg of our trip.

Did you know?

The size of a wave is determined by the multiplication of three variables.  The speed of the wind, the duration the wind blows, and the fetch (distance the wind blows.)  Increase any of those three and waves get bigger.  The size of waves can also be impacted by changing tides or currents and the specific topography of a shoreline.

Animals seen today

  • Stellar Sea Lions
  • Sea otter
  • Lots of birds including Haroquin ducks, double crested cormorants, gulls, common murres, and a blue heron

Mark Van Arsdale: Gelatinous Fireworks, September 21, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 21, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

Partially cloudy skies, variable winds, calm seas to three feet

59.27 N, 143.89 W (Cape Suckling Line)

 

Science Log

Gelatinous Fireworks

 

CTD (water chemistry) data visualized along the Cape Suckling Line.
CTD (water chemistry) data visualized along the Cape Suckling Line.

Last night, we traveled between the Middleton Island line and the Cape Suckling line, providing us with a change in pace from our regular routine of zooplankton and jelly collecting.  Still, it wasn’t a night off, and at midnight, while still in deep waters, we stopped to do a special Multi-net tow. At 800 meters (almost 2500 feet,) this was our deepest tow of the trip.  A tow that deep takes almost two hours to get down to depth and back up again.  This tow was looking for unique organisms for later genetic analysis, and most of the stuff that came up I had previously only seen in movies.  Deep red shrimp, giant copepods almost a centimeter in length, big-eyed lantern fish, comb jellies, and amphipods that looked straight out of the movie Aliens.

Lanternfish from a deep water (800 m) Multi-net tow.
Lanternfish from a deep water (800 m) Multi-net tow.

We had a couple of hours break until we reached the outermost Cape Suckling station, so naturally I slept.  We did our first Methot net jelly tow at five am. We were in deep water, 2500 fathoms (~15000 feet), and far enough off shore that the jellies were abundant.  In fact, as we were putting the net in the water we noticed that there were more jellies than we had previously seen at any sampling station.   After putting the net in, we turned off the ships lights and lay witness to a fireworks show in the water.  So many jellies, and each time one hit the net there was an explosion of blue green light.  Jellies, particularly the glass jellies, are super fragile with long delicate tentacles.  When they hit the net, their tentacles break apart and they release a plume of glowing bioluminescence.  The normal in-water time for this net is twenty minutes, but after seeing such dense concentrations of jellies we decided to pull it early.  As we pulled it out of the water, the net nearly bursting at its seams, we had to attach an extra line and bring the cod end out of the water with the crane.  We measured jellies for a long time, and watched the sky glow red as the sun came up over the rugged peaks of Cape St. Elias and the Bering Glacier.

The Scientists

Yesterday, I talked about the Crew of the Tiglax. Today I thought I would say a bit about the scientists on board.  Excluding myself, there are thirteen scientists on board.  Of those thirteen, ten are women and three are men.  The group includes four graduate students, three research technicians, two wildlife biologists, two primary investigators/professors from UAF, one investigator/professor from the University of Hawaii, and one semi-retired UAF research staff.  Aside from the wildlife biologists and the researcher from the University of Hawaii, they are all physical oceanographers.  Physical oceanographers look at the ocean almost as if it is an equation waiting to be solved.  If you have the right physical drivers, wind and currents may combine nitrates and iron at the surface.  If you have the right nutrients mixed with light near the surface, you get phytoplankton growth.  If you have oxygen and phytoplankton with the right physical conditions to stay near the surface, you can grow and sustain zooplankton. They build ecosystems as if by Lego blocks, each piece critical to the final outcome.

Ask any one of them how they get paid and you will inevitably get the response – it’s complicated.  Most of the salaries are funded through grants in what they describe as “soft money.”  Grants for research are funded by a variety of agencies, in this case, the largest being the National Science Foundation.  Writers of the grants list the number of positions required and the dollar figure attached to those positions.  Once the grant is awarded it gets managed by The University of Alaska accounting department.  For the grad students, these trips are certainly a learning opportunity, and one that a lot of schools could not offer.

Personal Log

Autonomy

The back and forth nature of the way we sample stations is at times dizzying.  We make progress slowly, sample four stations at night, drive back to where you started in the morning, then sample the same four stations during the day.  At sunset, start at the next station down the line.  Much of the conversation aboard revolves around what station we are on and what test is being run.   The acquisition of data is slow, tedious, and deliberate work.

Today we are closer to Canada than we are from the town of Seward where we left. When you are part of a research cruise one hundred miles off shore, you can’t just go home because you’re tired, or because something happens at home, or because you just want a break. If something breaks, you have a spare, or you try to fix it.  If a schedule gets altered because of waves or weather, you just sleep when you can and work later.  There is no phone and no internet, so you can’t call your kids to wish them goodnight.  There is just work, and I have found myself in many ways ill prepared for its single-minded focus.

I have come to realize how much I take for granted the autonomy I have to do or go where I want.  Out here, you have no autonomy.  You go where the boat goes, you eat what and when the chef says, you work when the chief scientist says to work, and you do exactly what they say.  This of course, is driven by the sheer expense of doing research at sea as well as the tremendous travel times it takes to get out this far.

Northern Fulmar, notice it's "tube nose."
Northern Fulmar, notice it’s “tube nose.” photo credit Callie Gesmundo.

Did you know?

Many seabirds have a structure on the tops of their beaks that looks like the air intake on a muscle car.  These birds are known as “tube-nosed” birds and they make up the order Procellariiformes.  The group includes albatross, fulmars, petrals, and shearwaters.   The tube hides two nasal glands that help them concentrate and remove excess salt from their blood.  The glads allow them to drink saltwater without suffering dehydration.

 

Animals seen today

  • Minke whale
  • Lots of sea birds including puffins, auklets, shearwaters, albatross, fulmars, petrels, and gulls

Mark Van Arsdale: The Tiglax, September 20, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 20, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

Partially cloudy skies, variable winds, calm seas to three feet

59.38 N, 146.3 W (Middleton Island Line)

 

Careers at Sea

The Tiglax

The R/V Tiglax  (TEKH-lah – Aleut for eagle) has been in operation since 1987.  During the 2018 field season, it traversed to Seattle, Nome, St. Mathew Island in the Bering Sea, and on multiple trips down the Aleutian Chain.  It supposedly logged enough miles in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea this summer to circumnavigate the Earth. It is operated by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  The North Gulf of Alaska Long Term Ecological Monitoring Project charters the boat for about $11,000 a day.

The Tiglax as seen from Middleton Island
The Tiglax as seen from Middleton Island

The boat itself is 121 feet long and 32 feet wide. It has two cranes for moving gear and a winch with 2000 meters of cable. The Tiglax has a front and back operating deck and a walk around on one side. Inside, the boat is equipped with a small science lab, bunks to accommodate sixteen passengers besides the crew, a galley, kitchen, a dry room for hanging rain gear and mustang suits, and a large hold for storing equipment at the bottom of the boat. The boat has its own water desalinization system, electrical generator, a huge fuel capacity, a walk-in fridge, and two walk in freezers. It can stay at sea for weeks, limited only by its supply of fresh food.

The Tiglax has a crew of six.  John Faris is the captain.   He has worked on the boat for eighteen years, the last three as captain.  John keeps tabs on all of the scientific work going on aboard the Tiglax and works closely with Russ Hopcroft, the chief scientist, to maximize what can get done on the boat with the time and equipment we have.  He’s always lighthearted and upbeat, unless you forget to wear your float coat while working on deck.  I appreciated that John seemed to have a genuine interest in the science understanding that his boat was contributing to.

Dan, Andy, and Morgan lowering a skiff for our trip to Middleton Island.
Dan, Andy, and Morgan lowering a skiff for our trip to Middleton Island.

Dan is the mate and back-up pilot, running the boat on the night shift. He is a recent addition to the boat, having previously worked in marine salvage.  He was full of great stories and we shared a common distaste for the night shift.

Andy is the ship’s engineer.  I never knew where he was, down in the engine room somewhere maybe, but when things broke, which they did, he was always on it.  Despite having blown a hydraulic line on the main crane, and having seriously taxed the aging winch, we only missed out on one tow in fourteen days.

There are two shifts on the Tiglax.  The night shift operates from 10 pm to 6 am, and then again from 2pm to 6 pm.  The dayshift runs on the opposite hours.   There are two deckhands to staff those shifts, Dave on the day shift and Marin on the nightshift. Dave and Marin have both been with the boat for a few years, and seemed to enjoy the life that an intensive six-month season provides.

Dave keeps a van in Arizona, and is looking forward to some desert therapy after a long season spent on the cold water of the Gulf.   He was patient when I lashed things down poorly and always offered up a smile when I reached zombie status at the end of the night shift. He also taught me that the phrase “make sure the dog is in the clover,” doesn’t have anything to do with a four-legged animal or a plant (my bad), but rather meant I was supposed to put the metal tie down hook (dog) in the clover-shaped tie down slot (clover) on deck.

Marin at the winch controls.
Marin at the winch controls.

Marin grew up commercial fishing and is pretty much super woman.  She could move heavy equipment as well as any man on board and run the crane with a delicate touch, all while making a float coat and Grundens rubber bibs look stylish.  Marin does some other gigs during the winter, including work as a professional climber cleaning tents for Cirque du Soleil.

This type of cruise is not the main function of the Tiglax. For much of the summer the Tiglax is bringing scientists to,  picking scientists up from, or resupplying study sights in the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea. The Tiglax is really a scientific taxi service and hotel. Our work, by comparison, is certainly repetitious if not dull. Running a deep-water plankton tow or a deep cast of the CTD typically means two hours of standing at the winch controls.  The deck hands will run the winch for those casts and tows over one hundred and twenty times during the length of this cruise.

Hardworking oceanographers have got to eat, and Morgan is key to that. Morgan is the ship’s chef; three times a day, she plans and prepares meals for twenty.  She is amazingly efficient in the kitchen, and always playing great music.  The rest of the crew thinks she has the hardest job on the ship.  Although fresh vegetables got a little hard to find, the food was always excellent.  Working just six months a year on the boat, she runs a private catering company the rest of the year.   She talked to me about the challenges of running a growing small business when you are so remote for so much of the year.

The entire crew lives in the town of Homer, the boat’s home port. They seem to enjoy their jobs on board the Tiglax as well as the exotic places it took them.

Personal Log

What’s it really like being at sea?

Being on board a small research vessel at sea is a series of sharp contradictions.  The boat can go anywhere, but you can’t go anywhere. You are in an incredibly remote and exotic location, but your day is totally routine.  When working, you are constantly busy, but when you aren’t working, there are few distractions and time moves slowly.  Look out at the horizon for an hour and you may see nothing but water and sky, but then in an instant a fifty-ton fin whale surfaces right in front of the boat.  You are traveling though places completely devoid of human noise, but the ship itself is a constant cacophony of sound.  When the boat moves completely out of sight of land, there is a visual blandness that lays in contrast to the thrill of the living things that populate the absurd depths below you.

Sunset on the Middleton Island Line
Sunset on the Middleton Island Line

Did you know?

If you want to open a door on a boat at sea you first have to unhook it.  All doors and shelves have hooks to keep them from flying open or closed.

Animals seen today

  • Fin whales
  • Dall’s porpoises
  • Lots of sea birds including puffins, auklets, shearwaters, albatross, fulmars, petrels, and gulls

 

Mark Van Arsdale: Estuaries, September 19, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 19, 2018

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

Clear skies, calm seas

 60.25N, 145.5 W (Middleton Island Line)

 

Science Log

Estuaries

Water chemistry for the Middleton Transect Line
Water chemistry for the Middleton Transect Line

Estuaries are semi-enclosed bodies of water where fresh and saltwater mix.  By this morning, we had moved into the Copper River Estuary and the salinity reading at the surface showed nearly fresh water.  Estuaries can be sites of incredible biological productivity, but in Alaskan high rates of water flushing due to rain and glacial melt along with low rates of plant decay (and almost zero use of agricultural fertilizers) mean that may not be the case.  Close to the Copper River, light may also become a limiting factor as the glacial sediments increase turbidity and decrease water clarity.  Along this line, we did see a narrow band of higher productivity (seen as Fluorescence on the graph above) about fifty kilometers out where water clarity had improved.

Estuaries tend to be shallow with lots of tidal movement.  This creates ideal conditions for plankton growth, and our nightly plankton tows did see more algae than we had in previous tows.  We also started to see juvenile pink shrimp and salmon smolt.  Much to our surprise, we were still catching jellies well into the freshwater area. For most oceanic species, fresh water is a stressor. Dealing with the constantly changing salinity is a challenge for any estuarine species.  An inflowing tide brings in denser saltwater, which moves along the bottom.  Freshwater flows in from rivers at the surface.   Depending on the conditions of the estuary, that can create either well mixed brackish water or distinct salt and freshwater wedges.

Bird biologist Dan Cushing entering data along the Middleton Line.
Bird biologist Dan Cushing entering data along the Middleton Line.

Estuaries across the world have historically been centers of intensive human development. In the U.S., New York, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Seattle are just a few examples of large urban areas sitting along large and important estuaries.  For historically developing cities, estuaries meant easy to access food and oceanic transportation, as well as the benefits of fresh water for drinking and the outflow of sewage waste.  Sixty percent of North America’s estuaries are considered to have significantly degraded habitat. However, the Copper River Estuary remains a largely undisturbed gem.  There are no dams on the Copper River and very little development along its watershed.   

Personal Log

Human Connections

When the sun came up in the morning we could see the heavy glacial silt of the Copper River.  There were sightings of ducks and other water fowl.  The water was grey and murky, but the peaks surrounding the Copper River water shed were sensational, and I found myself wishing I could stay awake.  As we get further east and into areas that I am completely unfamiliar with, there is so much to see, and I find myself wishing I did not have to sleep through the mornings.

Sunrise over the Copper River Estuary
Sunrise over the Copper River Estuary

At this point we were just a few miles away from the town of Cordova.  Although I did not, many people on board had cell service this morning.  When I woke up after five hours of sleep it was impossible to walk around the boat without seeing someone looking down at their phone.  Scientists at sea are very work focused, but even hard core scientists miss their human connections.  People wanted to talk to spouses or kids, and get updates on their friend’s social media.  There were also murmured discussions about what news we had missed over the last eight days, much of it ominous.  Our human connections are life sustaining points of encouragement, our twenty-four-hour news cycle maybe not so much.  By afternoon we were headed far back out to sea working on the Middleton line.  Because of the zig-zag nature of our day-night work, we have had a clear view of Middleton Island several times now.  Those who were here last year recall such torrential rains that they never saw the island once.  Our weather continues to be remarkably good.  We hope to complete the Middleton Line tomorrow and head further east to Cape Suckling after that.  Ironically, the good weather seems to be leaving the captain and crew slightly ill at ease.  It can’t last forever, and they seem to be wondering when the other shoe will drop.  I just hope that if and when the weather goes bad, it’s during the last leg of our trip when we have moved into the protected waters of Prince William Sound.

Mark Van Arsdale: Sightings from the Flying Bridge, September 18, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 18, 2018

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

Clear skies, calm seas

59.30 N, 146.15 W (Middleton Island Line)

 

Science Log

Sightings from the Flying Bridge

We finished up night work on the morning of the 17th in a bit of swell. Our last casts of the Methot and the Bongo nets were bumpy.  It was hard to stand up, and hard to keep objects from shifting dangerously.  But the swell didn’t last, and by time I woke up mid-morning it was a picture-perfect day, clear and calm. The day shift finished up sampling the Kodiak line by dinner, and we began a twenty-four-hour transit from the Kodiak line to Middleton Island east of Prince William Sound. I got the night off, and with it my first solid night of sleep since the trip started.  I felt like a whole new human.

Mola mola
Sunfish (Mola mola) with diver
© Tomas Kotouc
Tomas Kotouc
Sladkova 331/II, Jindrichuv Hradec, 377 01, Czech Republic

The transit allowed me to spend most of the day in the flying bridge and it was a good day for it.  We sighted fin whales in the morning, numerous sea birds, another Mola mola (ocean sun fish), and two pods of Risso’s dolphins in the afternoon.  The last two sightings are really interesting.  That was the third Mola mola spotted on the trip.   The Mola mola is the largest bony fish in the ocean.  They can grow up to four meters long and three thousand pounds, eating almost exclusively jellies. They are a bizarre looking fish.  They have no true caudal (tail) fin, thin elongated pectoral fins, and a body shaped like more like a giant head than a fish.   They also swim (if you can call it that) on their side.  The interesting thing is that the Mola mola is a sub-tropical fish and should not be seen in the North Gulf of Alaska – but here they are.

The Risso’s dolphins were another unusual sighting.  We saw them in groups of twenty or so.  Fast swimmers and acrobatic in their movements, you could see their characteristically white faces and scratched backs as they jumped out of the water.  None of the crew or scientists on board had ever seen them and we went through three books trying to get a solid ID.  Very little is known about this species, and confirmed sightings at sea are limited.  It’s likely that this will be the farthest north sighting of Risso’s dolphins recorded.

In the last few years, unusual sightings of species have become more common and not just on the surface.  Plankton tows are revealing copepod species more commonly associated with the California Current than the Gulf of Alaska.  It’s possible that these sightings represent observational bias – we are just paying more attention.  But it seems likely that species in the Gulf of Alaska are on the move.

The North Gulf of Alaska changes seasonally, it changes based on your depth and location, and it changes with weather and currents, but it seems obvious that it is also experiencing long term climactic change.  How will that change affect the stability of this rich ecosystem?  How will it affect the large slice of the Alaskan economy that depends on the wealth of fish brought out of the Gulf?  Already this summer, the Gulf of Alaska cod fishery closed due to lack of fish.  A disaster to some of fishermen in Kodiak, and a heavy hit to the Kodiak Island economy. By tomorrow morning we will be at the outflow of the Copper River.  Copper River salmon are famous for their rich flavor, high prices, and dependable arrival, but this summer, fishing for Copper River king and sockeye salmon was also closed for much of the summer. Fish were coming back small or not at all.

Middleton Island, the kittiwake tower in the background.
Middleton Island, the kittiwake tower in the background.

Personal Log

Middleton Island

Good weather has left us a bit ahead of schedule, and the captain and chief scientists decided we could make an excursion to Middleton Island.  When I get home I plan to do some more research on the Island, but it seems to have an interesting, albeit short history.  The island is just a few thousand years old, brought up out of the ocean by the tectonic movements of the Pacific and North American plates.  Much of the island is a flat plateau, surrounded by a series of shelves descending down to the water.  Some of the shelves are quite new, the latest edition came during the 1964 Alaska Good Friday Earthquake, as the island was force 12 feet up from the ocean.

Abandoned air force buildings and the newly remodeled kittiwake tower.
Abandoned air force buildings and the newly remodeled kittiwake tower.

The island was once home to a World War II Air Force base.  It was believed that its moderate climate would make an ideal early warning site, but the base was abandoned some time ago. Middleton is currently home to an FAA weather station and an immense number of nesting seabirds.   At some point the disintegrating air force buildings were taken over by those nesting sea birds.  Scott Hatch, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, saw an opportunity and over the years has turned the old Air Force tower into an observation and study center for nesting black legged kittiwakes.  Over a thousand birds have nests on the outside of the tower, and each one now has a one-way glass window at its back.  The nesting birds can be observed and studied by budding biology students from inside the tower. Studies have been done on their diets, metabolism, behaviors and numerous other details of their private lives. We got to meet Scott and his wife, who were just finishing up some end of the season work on the sight.  They gave us a bit of a tour and showed us where they had built facilities for students and observation sites for nesting common murres, as well as burrow digging sea birds like rhinoceros auklets and puffins. The sea birds were all gone, having fledged their young and returned to the ocean a few weeks before, but it was fun to imagine what the island looked and sounded like with thousands of sea birds on it.

View from inside the kittiwake tower.
View from inside the kittiwake tower.

The day off and a shore excursion seemed to leave everyone more relaxed that they have been for the last week.  People smiled and joked and enjoyed the unusually warm September day.  Feeling recharged, I was even looking forward to my night shift.

Cool Moment of the Day

We start working most nights just after the sun goes down.  Last night I noticed there was a bird following us just overhead.  It was an osprey, and it followed us for more than two hours as we worked through the night.  The bird undoubtedly thought we were a fishing vessel and was looking for handouts, but in the middle of the night it was an amusing distraction to look up at the rapture silhouette against the clouds.

Animals seen today

  • Fin whales
  • Harbor porpoises
  • Risso’s dolphins
  • Another Mola mola
  • Lots of sea birds including puffins, auklets, shearwaters, cormorants, fulmars, petrels, a merlin, an osprey

Mark Van Arsdale: Kodiak, September 17, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 17, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

This morning 25 knot winds from the NE, waves to 8ft, tonight calm seas variable winds, light rain

58.14 N, 151.35 W (Kodiak Line)

Science Log

Kodiak  

CTD (water chemistry) data visualized along the Kodiak line.
CTD (water chemistry) data visualized along the Kodiak line.

My wife and I have traveled to Raspberry and Kodiak Islands twice.  The island’s raw beauty, verdant colors, and legendary fishing make it one of my favorite places on Earth.  Its forests are dense, with huge hemlocks and thick growths of salmon berries.  The slopes are steep and covered with lush grasses.  Fish and wildlife abound.  As we moved our way down the Kodiak line, getting closer and closer to land, that richness of life was reflected in waters surrounding the Island.  In just fifty nautical miles we moved from a depth of a few thousand meters to less than one hundred.  Seabirds became more abundant, and we saw large groups of sooty and Buller’s shearwaters, some of them numbering in the thousands.  Sooty shearwaters nest in the southern hemisphere and travel half way across the planet to feed in the rich waters surrounding Kodiak.  Fin whales were also abundant today, and could be seen feeding in small groups at the surface. Our plankton tows also changed.  Deep sea species like lantern fish and Euphausiids disappeared and pteropods became abundant. We caught two species of pteropods that go by the common names – sea butterflies and sea angels.  Sea butterflies look like snails with clear shells and gelatinous wings.  Sea angels look more like slugs, but also swim with a fluttering of their wings.  Pteropods are an important part of the Gulf of Alaska Ecosystem, in particular to the diets of salmon.

Sooty shearwaters as far as you can see.
Sooty shearwaters as far as you can see.

In the last decade, scientists have become aware that the ocean’s pH is changing, becoming more acidic. Sea water, like blood, is slightly basic, typically 8.2 on the pH scale.  As we have added more and more CO2 into the atmosphere, about half of that gas has dissolved into the oceans. When CO2 is dissolved in sea water if forms carbonic acid, and eventually releases hydrogen ions, lowering the waters pH.  In the last decade, sea water pH has dropped to 8.1 and is predicted to be well below 8 by 2050.  A one tenth change in pH may not seem like much, but the pH scale is logarithmic, meaning that that one tenth point change actually represents a thirty percent increase in the ocean’s acidity.   Pteropods are particularly vulnerable to these changes, as their aragonite shells are more difficult to make in increasingly acidic conditions.


A nice introduction to Pteropods

Personal Log

I chose teaching

We have been at sea now for one week. I feel adrift without the comforts and routines of family, exercise, and school. There are no distractions here, no news to follow, and no over-scheduled days.  There is just working, eating, and sleeping. Most of the crew and scientists on board seem to really enjoy that routine.  I am finding it difficult.

There was a point in my twenties where I wanted nothing more than to become a field biologist. I wanted to leave society, go to where the biological world was less disturbed and learn its lessons. I see the same determination in the graduate students aboard the Tiglax. When working, they are always hyper focused on their data and the defined protocols they use to collect it.  If anything goes wrong with tow or sampling station, we repeat it. You clearly need that kind of focus to do good research. Over time, cut corners or the accumulation of small errors can become inaccurate and misleading trends.

When I was in graduate school hoping to become a marine biologist, I was asked to be teaching assistant to an oceanography class for non-science majors. Never having considered teaching, the experience opened my eyes to the joys of sharing the natural world with others, and changed my path in ways that I don’t regret. I am a teacher; over the last twenty years it has come to define me. On this trip, they call me a Teacher at Sea, yet the title is really a misnomer.  I have nothing to teach these people, they are the experts.  Really, I am a student at sea, trying to learn all that I can about each thing I observe and each conversation I have.

Bowler's shearwater, photo credit Callie Gesmundo.
Buller’s shearwater, photo credit Callie Gesmundo.

 

Animals seen today

  • Fin whales
  • Lost of shearwaters (mostly sooty but also Buller’s), along with puffins, auklets, skua

Mark Van Arsdale: What Makes Up an Ecosystem? Part IV – Jellies, September 16, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 16, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

Mostly cloudy, winds variable 10 knots, waves four to six feet during the day, up to eight feet at night

57.27 N, 150.10 W (Kodiak Line)

Science Log

What Makes Up an Ecosystem? Part IV Jellies

Ever seen a jellyfish washed up on the beach? Ever gotten stung by one?  Most people don’t have very favorable views of jellyfish.  I’m getting to spend a lot of time with them lately, and I am developing an appreciation. We have a graduate student on board studying the interactions between fish and jellies.  Her enthusiasm for them is infectious.

Graduate student Heidi photographing a phacellophora (fried egg) jelly
Graduate student Heidi photographing a phacellophora (fried egg) jelly

Jellyfish really aren’t fish.  They belong to a group called Cnidarians, along with corals, sea anemones, and hydras.   It’s one of the most primitive groups of animals on the planet.  Ancient and simple, Cnidarians have two tissue layers, a defined top and bottom, but no left and right symmetry and no defined digestive or circulatory systems.  Jellies have simple nerves and muscles.  They can move, but they are unable to swim against oceanic currents and therefore travel at the whim of those currents.  Jelly tissue is made of a collagen protein matrix and a lot of water.  I have heard one scientist call jellies “organized sea water.”  That’s really not too far off.  Seawater has a density close to one kilogram per liter, and when you measure jellies, their mass to volume ratio almost always approaches one.

Despite their simplicity, jellies are incredible predators.  When we scoop them up with the Methot net, they often come in with small lantern fish paralyzed and dangling from their tentacles.  Jellies possess one of the more sophisticated weapons in the animal kingdom. Located in their tentacles are stinging cells, called cnidocytes. These cells contain tiny, often toxic harpoons, called nematocysts. The nematocysts are triggered by touch and can deploy as fast as a rifle bullet, injecting enough venom to kill small fish or to give the person weighing the jellies a nasty sting.

Me holding a Chrysaora (sea nettle) jelly.
Holding up a Chrysaora (sea nettle) jelly.

Jellies have not been thoroughly studied in the Gulf of Alaska, and the work onboard the Tiglax may take us closer to answering some basic questions of abundance and distribution.  How many jellies are there, where are they, and are their numbers increasing in response to increasing ocean temperatures?

In order to sample jellies each night, four times a night we deploy a Methot net. The Methot net is a square steel frame, two and a half meters on each side and weighing a few hundred pounds.   It is attached to a heavy mesh net, ten meters long. Even in relatively calm seas, getting it in and out of the water takes a lot of effort.  We have already deployed it in seas up to eight feet and winds blowing 20 knots, and that was pretty crazy. The net is attached by steel bridle cables to the main crane on the Tiglax.  As the crane lifts it, four of us guide it overboard and into the water.  We leave it in the water for 20 minutes, and it catches jellies – sometimes lots of jellies.  On still nights, you can sometimes see jellies glow electric blue as they hit the net.

As we retrieve the net there are a few very tense moments where we have to simultaneously secure the swinging net frame and lift the jelly-filled cod end over the side of the boat. A few of the hauls were big enough that we had to use the crane a second time to lift the cod end into the boat.

Smaller ctenophores (comb jellies) caught in the Methot net.
Smaller ctenophores (comb jellies) caught in the Methot net.

Once on board, the jellies have to be identified, measured, and weighed.  Assuming catches stay about the same, we will measure over one thousand jellies while on this cruise.  I don’t know how all of this data compares with similar long-term ecological projects, but on this trip the trend is clear.  Jellies are true oceanic organisms, the further we go offshore the larger and more numerous they get.  Go much beyond the continental shelf and you have entered the “jelly zone.”

Personal Log

Seasick teacher

Last night was tough.  During our transit from the Seward line to the Kodiak line, things got sloppy.  The waves got bigger, and their periods got shorter.  To make things more uncomfortable, we were running perpendicular to the movement of the waves.  I retreated to my bunk to read, but eventually the motion of the ocean got the better of me and I made my required donations to the fishes.  The boat doesn’t stop for seasick scientist (or teacher) and neither does the work; at 11:00 last night I dragged myself from bed and reported for duty.

The work on the Tiglax is nonstop.  The intensity of labor involved with scientific discovery has been an eye-opener to me.  We live in a world where unimaginable knowledge is at our fingertips. We can search up the answer to any question and get immediate answers.  Yet we too easily forget that the knowledge we obtain through our Google searches was first obtained through the time and labor of seekers like the scientists aboard the Tiglax.

The goal of this project is to understand the dynamics of the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem, but one of the major challenges in oceanography is the vastness of its subject.  This project contains 60-70 sampling stations and 1,800 nautical miles of observational transects, but that is just a few pin pricks in a great wide sea. Imagine trying to understand the plot of a silent movie while watching it through a darkened curtain that has just a few specks of light passing through.

 

Transect lines for the North Gulf of Alaska Long-term Ecological Research Program.
“Pinpricks in the ocean,” Transect lines for the North Gulf of Alaska Long-term Ecological Research Program.

Did You Know?

Storm petrels periodically land on ships to seek cover from winds or storms.  They are one of the smaller sea birds, at just a few ounces they survive and thrive in the wild wind and waves of the Gulf of Alaska.

Last night we had a forked-tailed storm petrel fly into the drying room as I was removing my rain gear between zooplankton tows.  A softball-sized orb of grey and white feathers, it weighed almost nothing and stared at me with deep black and nervous eyes as I picked it up, wished it well, and released it off the stern of the boat.  It was a cool moment.

Animals Seen Today

  • Fin whales
  • Lots of seabirds including Storm Petrels, tufted puffins, Laysan and black-footed and short-tailed albatross, flesh footed shearwater, and an osprey that followed the boat for half the night
  • Mola mola (ocean sunfish), which was far north of its normal range

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Van Arsdale: What Makes Up an Ecosystem? Part III – Zooplankton, September 15, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 15, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

Mostly cloudy, winds southerly 20 knots, waves to eight feet

57.56 N, 147.56 W (in transit from Gulf of Alaska Line to Kodiak Line)

Science Log

What Makes Up an Ecosystem? Part III Zooplankton

The North Gulf of Alaska Long-term Ecological Research Project collects zooplankton in several different ways.  The CalVET Net is dropped vertically over the side of the boat to a depth of 100 meters and then retrieved.  This net gives researchers a vertical profile of what is going on in the water column.  The net has very fine mesh in order to collect very small plankton.  Some of these samples are kept alive for later experiments. Others are preserved in ethanol for later genetic analysis. One of the scientists aboard is interested in the physiological details of what makes copepods thrive or not.  Copepods are so important to the food webs of the Gulf of Alaska, that their success or failure can ultimately determines the success or failure of many other species in the ecosystem.  When “the blob” hit the Gulf of Alaska in 2014-2016, thousands and thousands of sea birds died.  During those same years, copepods were shown to be less successful in their growth and egg production.

Chief Scientist Russ Hopcroft prepping the Multi-net
Chief Scientist Russ Hopcroft prepping the Multi-net

The second net used to collect zooplankton is the Multi-net.  We actually use two different Multi-nets.  The first is set up to do a vertical profile.  In the morning, it’s dropped vertically behind the boat.  Four or five times a night, we tow the second Multi-net horizontally while the boat moves slowly forward at two knots.  This allows us to collect a horizontal profile of plankton at specific depths.  If the water depth is beyond 200 meters, we will lower the net to that depth and open the first net.  The first net samples between 200 and 100 meters, above 100 meters we open the second net.  As we go up each net is opened in decreasing depth increments, the last one being very close to the surface.  Once the net is retrieved, we wash organisms down into the cod end, remove the cod end, and preserve the samples in glass jars with formalin. In a busy night, we may put away twenty-five pint-sized samples of preserved zooplankton.  When those samples go back to Fairbanks they have to be hand-sorted by a technician to determine the numbers and relative mass of each species.  We are talking hours and hours of time spend looking through a microscope.  One night of work on the Tiglax may produce one month of work for technicians in the lab.

 

Underwater footage of a Multi-net triggering.

The last type of net we use is a Bongo net.  Its steel frame looks like the frame of large bongo drums.  Hanging down behind the frame is two fine mesh nets, approximately seven feet long terminating in a hard plastic sieve or cod end.  Different lines use different nets based on the specific questions researchers have for that transect line or the technique used on previous years transects.   To maintain a proper time series comparison from year to year, techniques and tools have to stay consistent.

A cod end
A cod end

I’ve spent a little bit of time under the microscope looking at some of the zooplankton samples we have brought in. They are amazingly diverse. The North Gulf of Alaska has two groups of zooplankton that can be found in the greatest abundance: copepods and euphausiids (krill.)    These are food for most other animals in the North Gulf of Alaska.  Fish, seabirds, and baleen whales all eat them.  Beyond these two, I was able to observe the beating cilia of ctenophores and the graceful flight of pteropods or sea angels, the ghost-like arrow worms, giant-eyed amphipods, and dozens of others.

Deep sea squid, an example of a vertical migrator caught in our plankton trawls
Deep sea squid, an example of a vertical migrator caught in our plankton trawls

By far my favorite zooplankton to watch under the microscope was the larvae of the goose neck barnacle.  Most sessile marine organisms spend the early, larval stage of their lives swimming amongst the throngs of migrating zooplankton.  Barnacles are arthropods, which are defined by their exoskeletons and segmented appendages.  Most people would recognize barnacles encrusting the rocks of their favorite coastline, but when I show my students videos of barnacles feeding most are surprised to see the delicate feeding structures and graceful movements of this most durable intertidal creature.  When submerged, barnacles open their shells and scratch at particles in the water with elongated combs that are really analogous to legs. The larva of the goose neck barnacle has profusely long feeding appendages and a particularly beautiful motion as it feeds.

We have to “fish” for zooplankton at night for two reasons.  The first is logistical.  Some work needs to get done at night when the winch is not being used by the CTD team.  The second is biological.  Most of the zooplankton in this system are vertical migrators.  They rise each night to feed on phytoplankton near the surface and then descend back down to depth to avoid being seen in the daylight by their predators.  This vertical migration was first discovered by sonar operators in World War II.  While looking for German U-boats, it was observed that the ocean floor itself seemed to “rise up” each night.  After the war, better techniques were developed to sample zooplankton, and scientists realized that the largest animal migration on Earth takes place each night and each morning over the entirety of the ocean basins.


One of my favorite videos on plankton.

Personal Log

The color of water

This far offshore, the water we are traveling through is almost perfectly clear, yet the color of the ocean seems continuously in flux.  Today the sky turned gray and so did the ocean.  As the waves come up, the texture of the ocean thickens and the diversity of reflection and refraction increases.   Look three times in three directions, and you will see three hundred different shades of grey or blue.  If the sun or clouds change slightly, so does the ocean.

The sea is anything but consistent. Rips or streaks of current can periodically be seen separating the ocean into distinct bodies.  So far in our trip, calm afternoons have turned into windy and choppy evenings. Still, the crew tells me that by Gulf of Alaska standards, we are having amazing weather.

Variations in water texture created by currents in the Gulf of Alaska.
Variations in water texture created by currents in the Gulf of Alaska.

 

Did You Know?

The bodies of puffins are much better adapted to diving than flying.  A puffin with a full belly doesn’t fly to get out of the way of the boat so much as butterfly across the surface of the water.  Michael Phelps has nothing on a puffin flapping its way across the surface of the water.

 

Animals Seen Today

  • Fin and sperm whales in the distance
  • Storm Petrels, tufted puffins, Laysan and black-footed and short-tailed albatross, flesh footed shearwaters

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

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 14, 2018

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

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

58.27 N, 148.07 W (Gulf of Alaska Line)

 

Science Log

What Makes Up an Ecosystem?  Part II Phytoplankton

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Log

Interesting things to see

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

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

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

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

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

A Laysan Albatross
A Laysan Albatross, photo credit Dan Cushing

 

Did You Know?

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

 

Animals Seen Today

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

 

Mark Van Arsdale: What Makes Up an Ecosystem? Part I – Chemistry, September 13, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 13, 2018

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

Clear skies, variable winds, swell 4-6 ft

59.58 N, 148.38 W (Gulf of Alaska Line)

 

Science Log

What Makes Up an Ecosystem?  Part I Chemistry

CTD (water chemistry) data visualized along the Gulf of Alaska Line.
CTD (water chemistry) data visualized along the Gulf of Alaska Line.

The scientists aboard this ship are trying to understand the working parts of the North Gulf of Alaska ecosystem.  Since Descartes, the western approach to science has required that the understanding of complex systems begin with the reduction of a system it to its simpler working parts.  For example, to understand the clock, you must take it apart and try to understand the mechanism of each piece separately.  The Gulf of Alaska is huge, and its ecosystem is both highly complex and highly variable.  Changes take place because of weather, season, and climactic regime.  Nonetheless, the first step to understanding it is to understand its chemistry.

The CTD gets dropped or “cast” at each station.  On this boat, that means four people shoving it out the back door while trying not to fall out themselves. There is more than $100,000 worth of equipment attached to the CTD Rosette and there is a moment in each cast where the CTD swings precariously before the winch lowers it down into the water. When the CTD comes back up, all of that data is run through a computer and it paints a picture of what conditions are like at depth.

Inside the "van" where water samples are processed for trace medals
Inside the “van” where water samples are processed for trace medals

CTD stands for conductivity, temperature, depth.  In reality, it tests for those things plus salinity, dissolved oxygen, nitrates, pressure, and florescence (which is a measurement of the chlorophyll in phytoplankton).  The CTD also has a camera onboard that takes gray-scale images of particles and plankton in the water column as it goes down.  Most of our CTD “casts” are showing a water column that is highly stratified, with a surface layer that is relative warm (34o Celsius), lower salinity, and a chlorophyll maximum around twenty meters.  The CTD shows a thermocline (rapid change in temperature) around fifty meters.  Below that, the water is colder and has a higher salinity, both of which results in water with a higher density.  The density differences between these two layers make it so that they don’t easily mix.  The stratification effect had been intensified by the recent stretch of sunny weather and light winds.  Stratification by density “traps” phytoplankton at the surface in waters ideal for photosynthesis except that in September, the availability of nutrients needed for growth is quite low.  Nitrates, nitrites, and silica have been used up by growing phytoplankton earlier in the summer and their absence now limits growth.

Catch from a Multi-net, mostly small euphausiids (krill)
Catch from a Multi-net, mostly small euphausiids (krill)

We have scientists on board measuring the surface waters for trace metals – iron in particular. It’s a common joke on board that the smaller the subject you study, the greater the equipment needs.  Whale watchers just need binoculars but the chemists have their own lab set up inside a twenty-foot shipping container or “van” strapped to the top deck.   The metals team drags a missile shaped device along the side of the boat known as an “iron fish.”  The iron fish, is connected to a long plastic tube and pump that provides them a constant stream of surface water.  Samples are continuously collected and frozen for later analysis back in Fairbanks.   Months of work will be required to process all of the samples collected on this trip.

A three-spined stickleback
A three-spined stickleback

Our plankton catches were much less variable last night.  The Multi-net caught almost exclusively small euphausiids (krill.)  The Methot net caught four kinds of jellies, including one moon jelly that the jelly expert was very excited about – perhaps a species not described in Alaska before.  The Methot net also caught a lot of small fishes swimming at the surface. One of which was the three-spine stickleback.  This was exciting for me because the three-spine stickleback is a species we use in my AP Biology class as an easy to understand and highly local example of natural selection.  The three-spine stickleback is a small fish, around 1 inch in size, found in both fresh and saltwater.  In saltwater, they have three large spines that discourage predators from eating them. Out here in the ocean, the spines give the fish a selective advantage.  During the last ice age, some sticklebacks were trapped in fresh water ponds and lakes in South Central Alaska.  There, they underwent a change.  The spines which were such a great defense in the ocean were a disadvantage to them in freshwater.  Aggressive dragonfly larva use the spines like handles to grab the small fish and eat them.  Over time there was a selective advantage to have smaller spines, and today freshwater sticklebacks have greatly reduced pelvic spines as compared to their saltwater cousins. Natural selection did not design a better fish, it simply picked which variants were more likely to survive and reproduce in its environment.

Personal Log

Cetacean acoustic recording buoy recovered by the Tiglax.
Cetacean acoustic recording buoy recovered by the Tiglax.

My second night shift was not any easier, but it was more pleasant.  Just before sunset, we took a slight detour from our transect line to recovery a buoy for a scientist from Scripps Institution of Oceanography.  An acoustic recorder, designed to count whales by their unique calls, it had been deployed a year earlier in 900 meters of water.  The crew had onboard a device that would talk to the buoy and signal it to release from its mooring.  It took about a half an hour, but eventually there we saw it bobbing at the surface.  Luckily the seas were pretty calm, and we were able to pull it through the side door.

The seas and weather continue to be excellent.  Last night we were treated to a display of the aurora around 3:30 AM.  It was so calm and so quiet that at one point, we could hear whales breathing around us.  Both served as distractions to the routine of net deployment, net retrieval, sample containment, repeat.

As we traveled the ten nautical miles between stations, the flood lights on the front deck were turned off and I would sit down to watch the stars.  To ancient mariners, the clear night sky was a map that could direct you across an ocean. It made me think of the Polynesian navigators tracking their small canoes across the Pacific.  It also made me think about Ptolemy, who thought the Earth was encased in a perfect glass sphere with stars painted along its interior.  I could see how you would think of such a sky as art.

Did You Know?

Did you know the Earth is round?  It seems silly to have to say, but as a science teacher, the battle against the fantasies and fallacies of the Internet are never ending.  Last year was the first year in twenty-one years of teaching that I was challenged by a student to prove to him that the Earth is round, and it happened twice.  So here goes.  On a boat in the Gulf of Alaska on a clear day, you know the Earth is round because as you move slowly away from the mountains, they disappear from the bottom up.  By the end of the day we had traveled far enough from shore that we saw just the snow-covered tips of mountain peaks.

Sunset, it must be time to go to work.
Sunset with the mountains receding in the background, it must be time to go to work.

Animals Seen Today

  • Dall porpoise
  • Lots of seabirds including black-footed and Laysan albatross, sooty shearwater, puffins and fulmars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Van Arsdale: Night Work, September 12, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 12, 2018

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

Partially Cloudy, Variable Winds, Seas to 3ft

59.43 N, 149.21 W (Gulf of Alaska Line)

 

Science Log

Night Work

Loading gear on the Tiglax
Loading gear on the Tiglax

Most of day one was spent loading, sorting, unpacking, and storing gear.  Scientists do not travel light.  There were more action packers on board than I have ever seen in once place. At midday, we had a safety training, which consisted of learning how to put on a survival suit and how to use the coffee machine without flooding the galley.  For night work, I was assigned a mustang float coat, a water activated flash light, and satellite locator, so that they could find my body if I went overboard.

After dinner, work shifted to putting together various nets and the CTD which I will describe in more detail later.  We got underway at about 8:00 PM, just as the sun was setting. I slept for an hour and was woken at 10:30 to begin my shift doing zooplankton tows.

The first tow uses a Methot net, which is a large square steel frame attached by d-rings to a heavy mesh net, ten meters long.  The net ends in a plastic sieve tube called a “cod end” that keeps any jellies from escaping.  The net is quite heavy, and it takes four of us to guide it as a crane raises it off of the deck and then lowers it over the side.  The net is dragged at the surface for twenty minutes.  In the darkness of night, it glows slightly green as ctenophores and other bioluminescent jellies smash into it.

Dave demonstrating the proper technique for putting on a survival suit
Dave demonstrating the proper technique for putting on a survival suit

After the Methot net is retrieved and secured on deck, we leave the collected jellies for a few minutes to go deploy the next net, called a Multi-net.  The Multi-net is a steel box about the size of a dishwasher with a funnel entrance and five separate fine-mesh nets hanging off of the back.  The net also has a heavy “fish fin” that acts to drag it down and keep it moving straight.  The four of us work the net to the edge of the boat, open the back gate, and use two winches to lower it overboard.  Once in the water and if the bottom depth allows it, the Multi-net gets dropped to a depth of two hundred meters and the first net is opened.  The Multi-net allows you to “carve up the water column.”  Each net can be triggered remotely to open and collect a horizontal sample of zooplankton at a specific depth.  The electronics also allow you to measure how much water volume flows through the net.  Each net is about two meters long, made of a fine mesh that funnels plankton into a soft sieve or “cod end”. While the Multi-net is “fishing,” we sort, classify, and measure the jellies collected in the Methot net tow.

A Methot Net Tow
A Methot Net Tow

The Seward Line Transect is made up of fifteen stops or stations.  Each one designated as GAK1, GAK2, etc. Once we finish sampling a station, the boat speeds up and drives us ten nautical miles to the next station.  Last night we managed to sample four stations, finishing the last one just as the sun rose around 7:00 AM.  When daylight comes, the Tiglax makes its way back to the place the night shift began.  All of the day-time sampling has to be done at each of the stations we sampled the night before.  The day-time sampling uses different tools, the main tool being the CTD Rosette Sampler.  The Rosette is a steel cage with water collecting “Niskin Bottles” and lots of other instrumentation strapped into the cage. There are fifteen bottles and each is triggered by computer to close at a specific depth.  This allows the scientists on board to measure a variety of physical and chemical properties of the water at depth.

Personal Log

The night shift was surprisingly dark.  That may sound obvious, but after a long Alaskan summer, with campfires and hikes that often went past midnight in perfect daylight, dark is an adjustment.   The night was beautiful and warm, but the work of deploying and retrieving nets was tedious and physical.  By morning I was exhausted, but I was reminded repeatedly that there are no cutting corners.  No matter how tired you get, each sample needs to be meticulously cared for.

After the sun came up, I forced myself to eat some breakfast and then I fell in bed for a hard sleep.  I could only stay there for a couple hours before my well-trained, morning-self wanted to greet the day.  The day was flawless, picture-perfect, sunny and calm, the kind of days you don’t often seen in the stormy Gulf of Alaska.

Animals Seen Today

  • Dall Porpoise
  • Lots of seabirds, including black-legged kittiwakes, pelagic cormorants, and sooty and flesh-footed shearwaters.

Shearwater taking off
Shearwater taking off, photo credit Callie Gesmundo

 

 

 

 

Mark Van Arsdale: Flexibility, September 5, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 27, 2018

Mission: Long-Term Ecological Research in the North Gulf of Alaska, aka The Seward Line Transects

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 5, 2018

Latitude: 61.3293° N
Longitude: 149.5680° W
Air Temperature: 60° F
Sky: Clear

Logistics Log

When I read the instructions for my application to NOAA Teacher at Sea, they emphasized the necessity for flexibility.  Alaskans, in my mind, epitomize flexibility.  The climate demands it.   When the weather changes, you have to adjust to it.  Not doing so can put you or others at risk.

My original cruise should have departed this weekend into the Bering Sea, but NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson developed problems with its propulsion system. Rather than sailing this research cruise, she will be in Kodiak under repair. I was pretty bummed when I got the news, but I really feel for all of those PhD students whose thesis projects needed the data from that trip.

RV Tiglax
RV Tiglax

The wonderful folks at NOAA told me that they were working on a new assignment, most likely in Southeastern US.  I tried to wait patiently, but I was thinking about how much I wanted to teach Alaskan kids about the ocean just a few miles from them.  Meanwhile, I had to cancel my substitute teacher.  My sub has done some biological fieldwork, and when I talked to him he was very understanding.  The funny thing was I got an email from his wife the next day, saying that she might have a berth for me.  It turns out she works for the North Pacific Research Board and was familiar with most of the fisheries and ecological research going on in coastal Alaska.  The berth was on the R/V Tiglax  (TEKH-lah – Aleut for eagle).  The Tiglax is not a NOAA vessel.  It is owned by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and operated jointly by the National Science Foundation.  NOAA Teacher at Sea does occasionally partner with other organizations.  After a few days of waiting, I was told that this cruise met the NOAA Teacher at Sea criteria.

Bringing an end to my long logistical story, I leave Monday on a trip into the Gulf of Alaska for seventeen days aboard the Tiglax.

Science Log

The science behind my new project is pretty exciting.  The Seward Line Transects have been run every summer since 1997 – every May and every September.  Weather permitting, we will repeat the Seward Line Transect (seen below in black) along with four other transects.  Each transect begins at a near shore location and makes it past the edge of the continental shelf into the deep waters of the Pacific.  At each transect station, water is collected using a CTD to test the physical and chemical properties of the water at that location.  A variety of plankton collection nets will be also be deployed.   One of these sampling stations (GAK-1) has been sampled continuously for plankton and water chemistry for forty-eight years, representing an incredible wealth of long term ecological data.

Here is Caitlin Smoot (who will be on board with me) talking about how Zooplankton is collected aboard the R/V Sikuliaq, another vessel that operates in the Gulf of Alaska.

 

Personal Log

The transect lines that make the North Gulf of Alaska Long Term Ecological Research Project
The transect lines that make the North Gulf of Alaska Long Term Ecological Research Project

My job will be working the night shift, helping to collect plankton.  I go out of my way in all of my classes to look at plankton.  I even wrote a lab using diatoms to investigate a suspicious drowning death for my forensic science class. I’ve been collecting and examining freshwater plankton around my home in Eagle River, Alaska with my science classes for years, but rarely have I gotten to look at marine plankton.  I’m excited to learning how plankton is collected at sea and how those collections are used to calculate relative abundance of plankton in the Gulf of Alaska from these samples.

In my classroom, I am always on the look out for how to better connect students to the science I am teaching.  I’ve taught Oceanography for fifteen years but never been on an oceanographic cruise.  I am hopeful this trip gives me a depth of experience that my students will benefit from.

As I get closer, I am not without some anxieties.  I’m the very definition of a morning person, so working the night shift is going to be an adjustment.  Just being aboard the Tiglax is going to be an adjustment.  At a length of 120 feet, the Tiglax is a small research vessel with pretty limited facilities and no Internet connection.  I’ve been in a lot of boats, but I don’t recall ever being beyond the sight of land.  Those transect lines go way out into the ocean, and I wonder what it will feel like to be 150 miles from shore.

Did You Know?

The average depth of the ocean approaches 3,700 meters (12,000 feet.) The Seward Line transect begins in water only 100 meters deep and moves into water greater than 4000 meters in depth.