Mission: Microbial Stowaways: Exploring Shipwreck Microbiomes in the deep Gulf of Mexico
Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 24-25, 2019
On Monday I was introduced to the R/V Point Sur in Gulfport, Mississippi. Every nook and cranny of this vessel is packed, and it took the science crew most of the day to pack it even fuller with all the equipment they need. The largest single item is the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Odysseus which makes a large footprint on the back deck. Over it hangs an enormous pulley that will be used to lift Odysseus in and out of the water.
When I arrived at the port, I met Dr. Leila Hamdan, the Chief Scientist, and some of the crew. We have two Rachels on board and they are both graduate students studying microbial biomes. Over time a layer of microbes form a “biofilm” on different kinds of wood and metal. This organic layer forms on the surface of a shipwrecks, and this is what the scientists are studying. They want to know how this layer speeds up or slows down the corrosion of shipwrecks and how other organisms use this habitat.
I was able to join in and help put together microbial recruitment experiment towers, or MREs for short. Each tower is a PVC pipe fitted with samples of wood, both oak and pine, and some metal samples. Each of these pipes fits loosely inside a second pipe, and then each set is roped together and attached to a float. Each tower is rigged in such a way that it will sink to the sea floor vertically, and then the outer pipe will rise to expose the inner tower and the sample plugs. After four months, the MREs will be retrieved, and the scientists will be studying what kinds of microbes grew on the samples. Their experiments add to our understanding of how shipwrecks act as a habitat for corals and other organisms
Finally, at the end of the day we had to quickly load the last of the gear on the ship before a huge container ship of bananas arrived to dock in our space. We set up a “fire line” to hand the last of the gear into the ship as fast as possible. We could see the huge Chiquita banana ship heading our way. The port was already stacked four high with Chiquita banana shipping containers and more bananas were coming! Who is eating so many bananas?!
As the newbie member of the crew, I was allowed to stay on board as the crew moved the ship from the large loading dock to the smaller pier on the other side of the port. This meant I got a taste of the ocean breezes that are going to help keep us cool once we leave land. I saw pelicans glide low over the water as I stood on the deck and imagined all the new and amazing things I am about to see and do.
If you’ve never been to Mississippi in the summer, I can tell you it is HOT and HUMID. It’s hard to imagine until you try to actually do something in it. If you were an egg, you would definitely fry on the sidewalk. Despite the heat, all over the ship crew and scientists are working, bolting things together, greasing mechanical parts, putting last minute touches on their experimental equipment, organizing the lab and working at laptops. To mitigate the heat and humidity outside, the air-conditioning runs on high inside the ship. This helps to keep the humidity from damaging the equipment, as well as to keep the crew happy. So it is actually COLD in here!
In addition to all this activity, a group of high school students visited the ship. They are participating in The Ocean Science and Technology Camp to learn about marine science careers and they will be tracking our progress from shore. Each of our many talented scientists shared a bit about their research and their roles in the ship. I will share more about that in another blog. We are scheduled to leave tonight at 1930 hrs, that’s 7:30PM for most of us! Stay with me, it’s going to be awesome!
Mission: Mapping Deep-Water Areas Southeast of Bermuda in Support of the Galway Statement on Atlantic Ocean Cooperation
Date: July 25, 2018
Air Temperature: 27.8°C
Wind Speed: 9.7 knots
Conditions: partly sunny
Depth: 5236.01 meters
Science and Technology Log
Since the Okeanos Explorer is known as “America’s Ship for Ocean Exploration,” it is equipped with two important vehicles that allow scientists to study normally inaccessible ocean depths. Deep Discoverer (D2) is a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that is mechanically designed with software and video engineering programs that generate precise images and videos. A total of nine cameras, including a Zeus Plus camera with impressive zoom capabilities, produce high-definition images that give scientists and those on shore insights about deep-sea ecosystems. The 9,000 pound ROV contains approximately 2,400 feet of intricate wiring as well as specially designed Kraft predator hand that can hold up to 200 pounds. The hand is especially useful for deep-sea sampling and allows scientists to bring certain organisms to the surface for further analysis. D2 can dive up to 30 meters per minute and is designed to withstand pressures almost 600 times that at sea level.
Rear view of D2
Side view of D2 (Check out the intricate wiring and size of the circuit board!)
D2 does not operate alone during the eight-hour dives. Instead, it relies on assistance from Seirios, another 4,000-pound machineknown as a camera sled. This deviceis powered and controlled by the Okeanos Explorer and offers the pilots and scientists a wide-angle perspective as they navigate the ocean floor. Seirios is tethered to the Okeanos Explorer and illuminates D2 from above to allow for increased visibility. The frame of this machine is relatively open which increases the distance cameras can be separated from the mounted lighting. This design reduces the light that reflects off particles in the water (optical backscatter) and results in high-quality images.
All of the deep ocean images and video collected by D2, Seirios, and the Okeanos, can be transmitted to the rest of the world by satellite. The Okeanos is fitted with telepresence technology that enables everyone involved in the operation to provide scientific context to the public.The ability to broadcast this exciting information requires effective collaboration between the Engineering Team, NOAA ship crew, and scientists both onboard and onshore. It is amazing that anyone with Internet connection can be involved the expedition and science in real time.
In order to make it back to Norfolk on time for dry dock, we will have to finish our mapping our survey area on the 27th. In the meantime, we have been continuing to process data, collect sunphotometer readings, launch XBTs, and play cribbage. Our cribbage tournament will conclude on Friday night! Everyone aboard is excited about the data we’ve collected and looking forward to a successful end of the expedition.
Did You Know?
The first fully developed ROV, POODLE, was created by Dimitri Rebikoff in 1953. However, it was not until the US Navy took an interest in ROVs that this unique technology became very popular. In 1961, the US Navy created the Cable-Controlled Underwater Research Vehicle (CURV).
Mission: South Atlantic Marine Protected Area Survey
Geographical area of cruise: South Atlantic
Date: June 25, 2014
Weather: Partly cloudy to sunshine. 27 degree Celsius. 8.0 knot wind from the southwest.
Locations: North Cape Lookout 3 Proposed MPA, South Cape Lookout Proposed MPA (both off the coast of North Carolina) and the Edisto MPA (off the coast of South Carolina.)
LAT 32°24’N, 79°6’W LON 32°24’N, 79°6’W
Hint: See the pictures LARGER.
If you click on any of the pictures in any of my blogs, they should open up full screen so you can see the detail better.
Science and Technology Logwith more than 20 ROV dives completed, here are five new items to share
Science Part I. Totally Awesome Turtle!
On Tuesday, June 24th during our first of four dives of the day a Loggerhead sea turtle came for a visit in front of the ROV. Loggerheads are common for the MidAtlantic and other oceans in the mid-latitude regions. Loggerheads grow up to 250lbs and are named for their relatively large heads.
This was a dream come true for me. I have always had this fascination with turtles stemming from catching them on Keller Lake in my early childhood to the snappers that have been visiting and nesting in our gardens the past few years at Goose Lake. Every turtle is entitled to a name, this one I am calling “TJ.” (Hi Taylor!) I hope we will see more.
Science Part II. Discoveries of Dives in the Deep – the fish
Science Part III. An Ocean of Stars – Echinoderms and other Invertebrates
A brief bit of science, then you can see the pictures. Echinoderms have three main characteristics:
1. A body plan with 5-part radial symmetry
2. A calcite skeleton
3. A water-vascular system
Here are a few we have found on the ocean floor the past few days with the ROV. By the way, it’s also a sky of stars at night from the ‘iron beach’ on the top deck aft of the bridge of the Nancy Foster.
One of the mollusks we found.
Science Part IV. Iceberg Scours dead ahead!
Many of the ridges and valleys Stacey Harter our chief scientist choose for us to investigate with the ROV are actually scours along the Atlantic Ocean seafloor created by icebergs that moved in a southwesternly direction towards the Carolina’s. Yes, I said icebergs! These scours I learned were probably created during the last deglaciation period, (~29,000-15,000 BP (before people)). I found this great blog post that summarizes some research on these and has a good graphic too. The scours are revealed through the multibeam mapping (MB) that the science mapping team conducts overnight. The image below is a MB map that shows the ridges and valleys (iceberg scours) and the red dots that form the line our ROV took exploring it on Sunday.
Multibeam (MB) Map showing iceberg scours. The red dotted line near the middle of the image is our ROV track from the dive, going east to west. Image courtesy of NOAA and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute . June 2014.
The earth science education I teach with the Earth Balloon and Earth Walk programs cover processes that shape and form the planet and I can’t wait to incorporate iceberg scours and the habitat they now provide into these programs!
A call out to Jennifer Petro and her class at Everitt Middle School in Panama City, Florida. Jennifer participated as a TAS in 2013 on this same research project. Her class sent a collection of decorated styrofoam cups with Andy David from the Panama City NOAA lab for us to bring to the bottom during one of our dives. This is what happens when Styrofoam is subject to increasing pressure.
Science Part V. I think we placed it here…I think it is here…It is here!
Earlier this spring, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources in cooperation with the Army Corp of Engineers sank two barges to create artificial reef systems and habitat for groupers, tilefish, and countless other species.
During the overnight hours of June 24th & 25th the mapping science team (see below) set out to find these two barges somewhere within a 2 square mile box using the MB aboard the Nancy Foster; that’s a lot of ocean to cover! I stayed up late with them and at about 10:00pm images began to emerge that resembled the barges. By 10:30pm, the mapping team had combed through the data and generated 3D maps that were strong evidence they had found them.
However, a hypothesis emerged; one of the barges may have flipped upside-down during its initial sinking and that some of the cargo containers had actually fallen off and came to rest on the ocean floor separate from the barge. During this discussion with the mapping team, I had this huge smile and was in awe with what they could do with sound waves!
So on Wednesday afternoon, June 25th the ROV team went to work to explore the sunken barges. I watched as Lance Horn slowly guided the ROV down below 100 meters. Eventually we could make out the barge. Lance had to use his many years of ROV piloting to carefully maneuver. We could not let the umbilical fiber optic and power cord get caught on any of the metal debris and towers that projected outward. What did we discover? Unfortunately I am unable to show you the pictures. At 90 meters in depth it was so dark, the digital camera could not capture quality images – even with two LED lights. However, the HD video gave us clear visual and conclusions. The barge settled upright on the sea floor (it wasn’t upside down). However, we speculate that it came down with such force that the shipping containers andstructures collapsed and broke away. Indeed four of them are lying on the ocean floor off the northwest corner of the barge. It’s only been a few months so habitat and few fish have yet to call it home, but schools of Amberjack were all around.
Kayla Johnson and Freidrich Knuth are our mapping scientists we brought on board as part of the science team and Samantha Martin and Nick Mitchell are fulltime NOAA mapping scientists assigned to the Nancy Foster. All four of them have very interesting stories about how they use their education and expertise to be eyes through the water column deep into the ocean. Freidrich and Kayla accompanied the science team as graduates from the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences at Charleston College.
It is really inspiring to hear about their experiences in MB mapping in many of the oceans worldwide. They are experts of combing through data we receive through a number of ship-mounted devices, applying complex GIS software (geographic information systems), and creating 2D & 3D maps that the science team can use to direct the ROV to the next day – which means this team works through the overnight hours and sleeps during the day.
I have been running on the treadmill which is located in a small fitness center low in the ship. It’s a very awkward feeling when there are large waves and the treadmill and I are going up and down and swaying side to side. The way I look at it I am running on water so it has to be easier on my knees.
I have lost track of the number of birthdays we have celebrated while offshore. From somewhere, seemingly daily, birthday cards and cakes emerge.
And for another quote from The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman that I am reading while aboard the Nancy Foster.
“Water is a pleasure. It is fun. Our sense of water, our connection to water, is primal. Anyone who has ever given a bath to a nine-month-old baby – and received a soaking in return – knows that the sheer exuberance of creating splashing cascades of water is born with us. We don’t have to be taught to enjoy water.” (p760)
We are sailing for the Florida MPA overnight tonight (10-12 hours) and will be ready to launch the ROV again tomorrow.
Glossary to Enhance Your Mind
Each of my logs is going to have a list of new vocabulary to enhance your knowledge. I am not going to post the definitions; that might be a future student assignment. In the meantime, some might have links to further information.
NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch has a great site of definitions at
TED – turtle exclusion device (Andy and I had a conversation about other work NOAA is doing in the Gulf related to turtles, TEDs and their work on trawlers. Perhaps another NOAA at sea adventure for me in the future.)
NOAA Teacher at Sea Jennifer Petro Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces July 1 — 14, 2013
Mission: Marine Protected Area Surveys Geographic area of cruise: Southern Atlantic Date: July 7, 2013
Weather Data Air temperature: 27.°C (81.5°F)
Barometer: 1022.50 mb
Wind direction: 195°
Wind speed: 6.1 knots
Water temp: 26.6° C (79.3°F)
Latitude: 34 44.62 N
Longitude: 75 91.98 W
Science and Technology Log
Today we find ourselves off of the coast of northern North Carolina where we will be for the next few days. An exciting aspect about this cruise is that we will be multi-beam mapping (a blog about that very soon) and sending the ROV down for surveys in new areas off of North Carolina. For the past few days I have been working with the team from the Panama City Southeast Fisheries Science Center identifying fish. This can sometimes be a very difficult prospect when the ROV is flying over the fish at 2 knots. The team from SEFSC consists of Andy David, Stacey Harter and Heather Moe. David is a 23 year veteran of NOAA and has been working on the MPA project since 2004. Stacey has been working on this project since its inception as well. Heather is new to the team and is just coming off of a 1 year assignment with the NOAA Corps at the South Pole.
There are several major objectives of this survey cruise.
There are several major objectives of this survey cruise.
(1) To survey established MPAs to collect data to compare to previous years’ surveys.
An important aspect of these cruises is to establish the effectiveness of an MPA. In some MPAs there is usually no fishing allowed. This includes trolling. bottom fishing (hook and line) as well as all commercial methods of fishing. The MPAs we are studying are Type II MPAs where trolling is permitted. They are looking for seven specific target species.
According to Andy, these species have been chosen due to their commercial value. During each dive a record is taken as to the type of species seen. We are specifically looking for the target species but we are keeping track of ALL the species that we see. I think it is fantastic to see scientists get excited about seeing something new. So far we have seen Oceanic Sunfish (2), Redband Parrotfish, Tautog (a more northerly found fish), Longsnout Butterflyfish and one fish species that we have not identified yet. There is an emphasis on Lionfish counts to assist in gauging how the introduction of this invasive species is affecting the overall fish populations. In some areas the Lionfish numbers have increased dramatically over the years. Today we actually saw one try to eat a smaller fish! They are very abundant in some locations and not in others but they have been present in 95% of our dives.
(2) Survey outside of the MPAs.
You may ask “Why survey outside the area?” We want to know if the MPAs are indeed doing what they were designed to do: protect fish species. That was very evident in Jacksonville where the numbers and size of Gag Grouper and Scamp far exceeded the numbers and size outside the MPA.
(3) Survey new sites for possible MPA designation.
There is a process that is followed when determining if an area is a suitable MPA candidate. What we are doing on this cruise is both mapping and surveying new areas that have been proposed as MPA sites. This is the ground level stage. The MPAs in the region that we are in are ultimately determined by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
Data during the dives is collected in a few ways. There are several video monitors that we watch and we call out species that we see. A data keyboard, like the one Harbor Branch uses for invertebrates counts, is used to keep track of types and number of each species seen. During every dive a video from the camera on the ROV is recorded and species are highlighted and recorded on to the DVD. This data will be analyzed thoroughly back at the lab and then sent to the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
I am happy to announce that I have finally gotten my sea legs. It wasn’t as bad as I had envisioned but I was definitely concerned that it would be a major issue. We had some weather on Thursday, July 4 and that was the worst of it for me. I now hardly feel the vessel move. It has been fun over the past several days. We are in the lab most of the days so we only get to really see the crew at mealtimes and after dinner. The crew, from the CO to the engineers, are all great people. They are happy to answer questions, point you in the right direction and are quick to say hi and ask you about your day. Yesterday afternoon one of the engineers, Steve, gave us a tour of the engine room. All of the ship’s infrastructure is supported by this room. The engines run the generators for power, support the a/c, house the desalination filters (all the fresh water on board comes from salt water) as well as getting the boat from point A to point B. I was impressed!
Today after our last ROV dive, a school of Mahi mahi followed it (the ROV) up to the surface. The fishing was on! The crew brought out rods, reels and bait and the fishing commenced. Collectively we managed to land one bull or male and 2 smaller Mahi mahi. It was a nice diversion for all of us, scientists and crew, as we were back to work all too quickly. Fish tacos for dinner!
Fair weather and calm seas.
Did you know that…
Some grouper can grow to be so huge that when they open their mouths to feed, they create a suction that is powerful enough to inhale small prey.
NOAA Teacher at Sea: Margaret Stephens NOAA Ship:Pisces Mission: Fisheries, bathymetric data collection for habitat mapping Geographical Area of Cruise: SE United States continental shelf waters from Cape Hatteras, NC to St. Lucie Inlet, FL Date: May 28, 2011 (Last day!)
Weather Data from the Bridge As of 06:43, 28 May
Speed 7.60 knots
Wind Speed 10.77 knots
Wind Direction 143.91 º
Surface Water Temperature 25.53 ºC
Surface Water Salinity 36.38 PSU
Air Temperature 24.70 ºC
Relative Humidity 92.00 %
Barometric Pressure 1011.10 millibars
Water Depth 30.17 m
Science and Technology Log
These scientists are not only smart, but they are neat and clean, too! After completing final mapping and fish sampling on the second-to-last day, we spent the remainder of the time cleaning the wet (fish) lab, packing all the instruments and equipment, and carefully labeling each item for transport. We hosed down all surfaces and used non-toxic cleaners to leave the stainless steel lab tables and instruments gleaming, ready for the next research project. The Pisces, like other NOAA fisheries ships, is designed as a mobile lab platform that each research team adapts to conform to its particular needs. The lab facilities, major instruments and heavy equipment are permanent, but since research teams have different objectives and protocols, they bring aboard their own science personnel, specialized equipment, and consumable supplies. The primary mission of NOAA’s fisheries survey vessels, like Pisces, is to conduct scientific studies, so the ship’s officers and crew adjust and coordinate their operations to meet the requirements of each research project. The ship’s Operations Officer and the Chief Scientist communicate regularly, well before the project begins and throughout the time at sea, to facilitate planning and smooth conduct of the mission.
We made up for the two days’ delay in our initial departure (caused by mechanical troubles and re-routing to stay clear of the Endeavor space shuttle launch, described in the May 18 log), thanks to nearly ideal sea conditions and the sheer hard work of the ship’s and science crews. The painstaking work enabled the science team to fine tune their seafloor mapping equipment and protocols, set traps, and accumulate data on fish populations in this important commercial fishing area off the southeastern coast of the United States. The acoustics team toiled every night to conduct survey mapping and produce three dimensional images of the sea floor. They met before sunrise each morning with Chief Scientist Nate Bacheler to plan the daytime fish survey routes, and the fish lab team collected two to three sets of six traps every day. The videographers worked long hours, backing up data and adjusting the camera arrays so that excellent footage was obtained. In all, we obtained ten days’ worth of samples, brought in a substantial number of target species, red snapper and grouper, recorded hours of underwater video, and collected tissue and otolith samples for follow-up analysis back at the labs on land.
Scientists and engineers often use models to help visualize, represent, or test phenomena they are studying. Models are especially helpful when it is too risky, logistically difficult, or expensive to conduct extensive work under “live” or real-time conditions.
As described in previous logs, this fisheries work aboard Piscesinvolves surveying and trapping fish to analyze population changes among commercially valuable species, principally red snapper and grouper, which tend to aggregate in particular types of hardbottom habitats. Hardbottom, in contrast to sandy, flat areas, consists of rocky ledges, coral, or artificial reef structures, all hard substrates. By locating hardbottom areas on the sea floor, scientists can focus their trapping efforts in places most likely to yield samples of the target fish species, thus conserving valuable time and resources. So, part of the challenge is finding efficient ways to locate hardbottom. That’s where models can be helpful.
The scientific models rely on information known about the relationships between marine biodiversity and habitat types, because the varieties and distribution of marine life found in an area are related to the type of physical features present. Not surprisingly, this kind of connection often holds true in terrestrial (land) environments, too. For example, since water-conserving succulents and cacti are generally found in dry, desert areas, aerial or satellite images of land masses showing dry environments can serve as proxies to identify areas where those types of plants would be prevalent. In contrast, one would expect to find very different types of plant and animal life in wetter areas with richer soils.
Traditional methods used to map hardbottom and identify fish habitat include direct sampling by towing underwater video cameras, sonar, aerial photography, satellite imaging, using remotely operating vehicles (ROV’s), or even setting many traps in extensive areas. While they have some advantages, all those methods are labor and time-intensive and expensive, and are therefore impractical for mapping extensive areas.
This Pisces team has made use of a computer and statistical model developed by other scientists that incorporates information from previous mapping (bathymetry) work to predict where hardbottom habitat is likely to be found. The Pisces scientists have employed the “Dunn” model to predict potential hardbottom areas likely to attract fish populations, and then they have conducted more detailed mapping of the areas highlighted by the model. (That has been the principal job of the overnight acoustics team.) Using those more refined maps, the day work has involved trapping and recording video to determine if fish are, indeed, found in the locations predicted. By testing the model repeatedly, scientists can refine it further. To the extent that the model proves accurate, it can guide future work, making use of known physical characteristics of the sea floor to identify more areas where fish aggregate, and helping scientists study large areas and develop improved methods for conservation and management of marine resources.
Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) Measurements
Another aspect of the data collection aboard Pisces involves measuring key physical properties of seawater, including temperature and salinity (saltiness, or concentration of salts) at various depths using a Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) device.
Salinity and temperature affect how sound travels in water; therefore, CTD data can be used to help calibrate the sonar equipment used to map the sea floor. In other instances, the data are used to help scientists study changes in sea conditions that may affect climate. Increases in sea surface temperatures, for example, can speed evaporation, moisture and heat transfer to the atmosphere, feeding or intensifying storm systems such as hurricanes and cyclones.
Pisces’ shipboard CTD, containing a set of probes attached to a cylindrical housing, is lowered from the side deck to a specified depth. A remote controller closes the water collection bottles at the desired place in the water column to extract samples, and the CTD takes the physical measurements in real time.
Of all the many species collected, only the red snapper and grouper specimens were kept for further study; most of the other fish were released after they were weighed and measured. A small quantity was set aside for Chief Steward Jesse Stiggens to prepare for the all the ship’s occupants to enjoy, but the bulk of the catch was saved for charitable purposes. The fish (“wet” lab) team worked well into overtime hours each night to fillet the catch and package it for donation. They cut, wrapped, labeled and fresh froze each fillet as carefully as any gourmet fish vendor would. Once we disembarked on the last day, Scientist Warren Mitchell, who had made all the arrangements, delivered over one hundred pounds of fresh frozen fish to a local food bank, Second Harvest of Northern Florida. It was heartening to know that local people would benefit from this high-quality, tasty protein.
Careers at Sea
Many crew members gave generously of their time to share with me their experiences as mariners and how they embarked upon and developed their careers. I found out about many, many career paths for women and men who are drawn to the special life at sea. Ship’s officers, deck crew, mechanics, electricians, computer systems specialists, chefs and scientists are among the many possibilities.
Chief Steward Jesse Stiggens worked as a cook in the U.S. Navy and as a chef in private restaurants before starting work with NOAA. He truly loves cooking, managing all the inventory, storage and food preparation in order to meet the needs and preferences of nearly forty people, three meals a day, every day. He even cooks for family and friends during his “off” time!
Electronics specialist Bob Carter, also a Navy veteran, is responsible for the operations and security of all the computer-based equipment on board. He designed and set up the ship’s network and continually expands his skills and certifications by taking online courses. He relishes the challenges, responsibilities and autonomy that come along with protecting the integrity of the computer systems aboard ship.
First Engineer Brent Jones has worked for many years in the commercial and government sectors, maintaining engines, refrigeration, water and waste management, and environmental control systems. He gave me a guided tour of the innards of Pisces, including four huge engines, heating and air conditioning units, thrusters and rudders, hoists and lifts, fresh water condenser and ionizers, trash incinerator, and fire and safety equipment. The engineering department is responsible for making sure everything operates safely, all day and night, every day. Brent and the other engineers are constantly learning, updating and sharpening their skills by taking specialized courses throughout their careers.
Chief Boatswain James Walker is responsible for safe, efficient operations on deck, including training and supervising all members of the deck crew. He entered NOAA after a career in the U.S. Navy. The Chief Boatswain must be diplomatic, gentle but firm, and a good communicator and people manager. He coordinates safe deck operations with the ship’s officers, crew, and scientific party and guests.
NOAA officers are a special breed. To enter the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, applicants must have completed a bachelor’s degree with extensive coursework in mathematics or sciences. They need not have experience at sea, although many do. They undergo an intensive officers’ training program at a marine academy before beginning shipboard work as junior officers, where they train under more experienced officers to learn ship’s systems and operations, protocols, navigation, safety, personnel management, budgeting and administrative details. After years of hard work and satisfactory performance, NOAA officers may advance through the ranks and eventually take command of a ship.
All the officers and crew aboard Pisces seem to truly enjoy the challenges, variety of experiences and camaraderie of life at sea. They are dedicated to NOAA’s mission and take pride in the scientific and ship operations work. To be successful and satisfied with this life, one needs an understanding family and friends, as crew can be away at sea up to 260 days a year, for two to four weeks at a time. There are few personal expenses while at sea, since room and board are provided, so prudent mariners can accumulate savings. There are sacrifices, as long periods away can mean missing important events at home. But there are some benefits: As one crewman told me, every visit home is like another honeymoon!
I had expected that life aboard Pisceswould include marine toilets and salt water showers with limited fresh water just for rinsing off. I was surprised to find regular water-conserving flush toilets and fresh water showers. Still, the supply of fresh water is limited, as all of it is produced from a condensation system using heat from the engines. During our ship orientation and safety session on the first day, Operations Officer Tracy Hamburger and Officer Mike Doig cautioned us to conserve water. They explained (but did not demonstrate!) a “Navy” shower, which involves turning the water on just long enough to get wet, off while soaping up, and on again for a quick rinse. It is quite efficient – more of us should adopt the practice on land. Who really needs twenty minute showers with fully potable water, especially when more than one billion people on our “water planet” lack safe drinking water and basic sanitation?
The drill I had anticipated since the first pre-departure NOAA Teacher at Sea instructions arrived in my inbox finally happened. I had just emerged from a refreshing “Navy” shower at the end of a fishy day when the ship’s horn blasted, signaling “Abandon ship!” We’d have to don survival suits immediately to be ready to float on our own in the sea for an indefinite time. Fortunately, I had finished dressing seconds before the alarm sounded. I grabbed the survival suit, strategically positioned for ready access near my bunk, and walked briskly (never run aboard ship!) to the muster station on the side deck. There, all the ship’s occupants jostled for space enough on deck to flatten out the stiff, rubbery garment and attempt to put it on. That’s much easier said than done; it was not a graceful picture. “One size fits all”, I learned, is a figment of some manufacturer’s imagination. My petite five foot four frame was engulfed, lost in the suit, while the burly six- foot-five crewman alongside me struggled to squeeze himself into the same sized suit. The outfit, affectionately known as a Gumby, is truly designed for survival, though, as neoprene gaskets seal wrists, leaving body parts covered, with only a small part of one’s face exposed. The suit serves as a flotation device, and features a flashing light, sound alarm, and other warning instruments to facilitate locating those unfortunate enough to be floating at sea.
Thankfully, this was only a test run on deck. We were spared the indignity of going overboard to test our true survival skills. I took advantage of the opportunity to try a few jumping jacks and pushups while encased in my Gumby.
Bets Are On!
These scientists are fun-loving and slightly superstitious, if not downright mischievous. On the last day, Chief Scientist Nate Bacheler announced a contest: whoever came closest to predicting the number of fish caught in the last set of traps would win a Pisces t-shirt that Nate promised to purchase with his personal funds. In true scientific fashion, the predictions were carefully noted and posted for all to see. As each trap was hauled in, Nate recorded the tallies on the white board in the dry lab. Ever the optimist, basing my estimate on previous days’ tallies, I predicted a whopping number: 239.
I should have been more astute and paid more attention to the fact that the day’s survey was planned for a region that featured less desirable habitats for fish than previous days. Nate, of course, having set the route, knew much more about the conditions than the rest of us did. His prediction: a measly 47 fish. Sure enough, the total tally was 38, and the winner was………Nate! Our loud protests that the contest was fixed were to no avail. He declared himself the winner. Next time, we’ll know enough to demand that the Chief Scientist remove himself from the contest.
Once the day’s deck work was over, a fish call came over the ship’s public address system. Kirk Perry, one of the avid fishermen among the crew, attached a line baited with squid from the stern guard rail and let it troll along unattended, since a fishing pole was unnecessary. Before long, someone else noticed that the line had hooked a fish. It turned out to be a beautiful mahi-mahi, with sleek, streamlined, iridescent scales in an array of rainbow colors, and quite a fighter. I learned that the mahi quickly lose their color once they are removed from the water, and turn to a pale gray-white once lifeless. If only I were a painter, I would have stopped everything to try to capture the lovely colors on canvas.
We entered Mayport under early morning light. An official port pilot is required to come aboard to guide all ships into port, so the port pilot joined Commander Jeremy Adams and the rest of the officer on the bridge as we made our way through busy Mayport, home of a United States Naval base. Unfortunately, the pier space reserved for Pisces was occupied by a British naval vessel that had encountered mechanical problems and was held up for repairs, so she could not be moved. That created a logistical challenge for us, as it meant that Pisces had to tie up alongside a larger United States naval ship whose deck was higher than ours. Once again, the crew and scientists showed their true colors, as they braved the hot Florida sun, trekking most of the gear and luggage by hand over two gangplanks, across the Navy ship, onto the pier, and loading it into the waiting vehicles.
The delay gave me a chance to say farewell and thank the crew and science team for their patience and kindness during my entire time at sea.
These eleven days sailed by. The Pisces crew had only a short breather of a day and a half before heading out with a new group of scientists for another research project. To sea again….NOAA’s work continues.
A big “Thank you!” to all the scientists and crew who made my time aboard Pisces so educational and memorable!