NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
August 12 – 25, 2018
Mission: Shark/Red Snapper Longline Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise: Western North Atlantic Ocean/Gulf of Mexico
Date: August 26, 2018
Weather Data from the Air
Conditions at 0634
Altitude: 9585 meters
Outside Temperature: -38 ℃
Distance to Destination: 362 km
Tail Wind: 0 km/h
Ground Speed: 837 km/h
(While NOAA Ship Oregon II has many capabilities, flight isn’t one of them. These were the conditions on my flight home.)
Science and Technology Log
The idea of placing an elementary school teacher on a Shark/Red Snapper Longline Survey seems like a reality show premise, and I couldn’t believe that it was my surreal reality. Several times a day, I took a moment to appreciate my surroundings and the amazing opportunity to get so close to my favorite creatures: sharks!
Anyone who knows me is aware of my obsession with sharks. Seeing several sharks up close was a hallowed, reverential experience. Reading about sharks, studying them through coursework, and seeing them on TV or in an aquarium is one thing. Being only a few feet away from a large tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) or a great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran) is quite another. Seeing the sharks briefly out of the water provided a quick glimpse of their sinewy, efficient design…truly a natural work of art. Regardless of size, shape, or species, the sharks were powerful, feisty, and awe-inspiring. The diversity in design is what makes sharks so fascinating!
Even just a quick peek of this tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) reveals her strong muscles and powerful, flexible design.
This female tiger shark was large enough to require the shark cradle. The reinforced netting on the cradle provided support for the 10.5 foot shark.
The shape of this sandbar shark’s (Carcharhinus plumbeus) head and eye is quite different from the tiger shark’s distinct design.
Even in the dark, the shape of the great hammerhead’s (Sphyrna mokarran) cephalofoil is unmistakable.
I envied the remora, or sharksucker, that was attached to one of the sharks we caught. Imagine being able to observe what the shark had been doing, prior to encountering the bait on our longline fishing gear. What did the shark and its passenger think of their strange encounter with us? Where would the shark swim off to once it was released back into the water? If only sharks could talk. I had many questions about how the tagging process impacts sharks. As we started catching and tagging sharks, I couldn’t help but think of a twist on the opening of MTV’s The Real World: “…To find out what happens…when sharks stop being polite…and start getting reeled.”
Sadly for my curiosity, sharks have yet to acquire the ability to communicate verbally, despite their many advantageous adaptations over millions of years. To catch a glimpse of their actions in their watery world, scientists sometimes attach cameras to their fins or enlist the help of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to learn more. The secret lives of sharks… reality TV at its finest.
Underwater camera footage is beginning to reveal the answers to many of the questions my Kindergarten-5th grade students have about sharks:
How deep can sharks swim?
How big can sharks get? How old can sharks get?
Do sharks sleep? Do sharks stop swimming when they sleep? Can sharks ever stop swimming?
Do sharks have friends? Do sharks hunt cooperatively or alone?
Is the megalodon (Carcharocles megalodon) still swimming around down there? (This is a very common question among kids!)
The answers vary by species, but an individual shark can reveal quite a bit of information about shark biology and behavior. Tagging sharks can provide insight about migratory patterns and population distribution. This information can help us to better understand, manage, and protect shark populations.
These tools are used to weigh (scales on bottom right), collect samples (scissors and vials), remove hooks (pliers, plus other instruments not pictured), apply tags (leather punch, piercing implement, and tags), and record data (clipboard and data sheet).
Using several low-tech methods, a great deal of information could be gleaned from our very brief encounters with the sharks we caught and released. In a very short amount of time, the following information was collected and recorded:
• hook number (which of the 100 longline circle hooks the shark was caught on)
• genus and species name (we recorded scientific and common names)
• four measurements on various points of the shark’s body (sometimes lasers were used on the larger sharks)
• weight (if it was possible to weigh the shark: this was harder to do with the larger, heavier sharks)
• whether the shark was male or female, noting observations about its maturity (if male)
• fin clip samples (for genetic information)
• photographs of the shark (we also filmed the process with a GoPro camera that was mounted to a scientist’s hardhat)
• applying a tag on or near the shark’s first dorsal fin; the tag number was carefully recorded on the data sheet
• additional comments about the shark
Finally, the hook was removed from the shark’s mouth, and the shark was released back into the water (we watched carefully to make sure it swam off successfully)!
Longline fishing uses 100 numbered hooks. When a fish is caught, it’s important to record the hook number it was caught on.
Depending on the shark’s size, we either attached a swivel tag (on left and middle, sometimes called a Rototag or fin tag; used for smaller sharks) or a dart tag (on right, sometimes called an “M” tag; used for larger sharks).
For more information on shark tagging: https://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/nefsc/Narragansett/sharks/tagging.html
Other fish were retained for scientific samples. Yellowedge grouper (Epinephelus flavolimbatus), blueline tilefish (Caulolatilus microps), and red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) were some of species we caught and sampled. Specific samples from specific species were requested from various organizations. Generally, we collected five different samples:
• fin clips: provide genetic information
• liver: provides information about the health of the fish, such as the presence of toxins
• muscle tissue: can also provide information about the health of the fish
• gonads: provide information about reproduction
• otoliths: These bony structures are found in the inner ear. Similar to tree rings, counting the annual growth rings on the otoliths can help scientists estimate the age of the fish.
Samples were taken from this yellowedge grouper (Epinephelus flavolimbatus).
Samples were preserved and stored in vials, jars, and plastic sample bags, including a Whirl-Pak. These bags and containers were carefully numbered and labeled, corresponding with the information on the data sheets. Other information was noted about the fish, including maturity and stomach contents. Sometimes, photos were taken to further document the fish.
This Whirl-Pak sample bag will be used to store samples from a bony fish. To close it, the yellow tabs are held tight and the bag is whirled around until it closes.
A tissue sample containing muscle from a fish was placed inside the Whirl-Pak and frozen. Later, it will be studied at a lab.
Thinking of the Oregon II as my floating classroom, I looked for analogous activities that mirrored my elementary students’ school day. Many key parts of the elementary school day could be found on board.
Sometimes, my students struggle to tell the time with analog clocks. The ship uses military time, so this 24-hour clock would probably cause some perplexed looks at first! We usually ate dinner between 1700-1800.
Physical Education: Fitness equipment could be found in three locations on the ship.
Health: To stay energized for the twelve-hour shifts, it was important to get enough sleep, make healthy food choices, and stay hydrated. With lots of exercise, fresh air, and plenty of water, protein, and vegetables, I felt amazing. To sample some local flavors, I tried a different hot sauce or Southern-style seasoning at every meal.
There wasn’t a nurse’s office, but first aid and trained medical personnel were available if needed.
Some fresh paint for the ship.
Fresh NOAA blue stripes echoed the sky and surrounding water.
Art and music: While I was there, the ship received a fresh coat of paint. Many people on board enjoyed creative pursuits in their free time. We listened to and talked about music while deploying the longline gear.
With my young readers and writers in mind, I applied my literacy lens to many of the ship’s activities. Literacy was the thread that ran through many of our daily tasks, and literacy was the cornerstone of every career on board. Several ship personnel described the written exams they’d taken to advance in their chosen careers. Reading and writing were used in everything from the recipes and daily menu prepared by Second Cook Arlene Beahm and Chief Steward Valerie McCaskill in the galley to the navigation logs maintained by Ensign Chelsea Parrish on the ship’s bridge.
The menu changed every day. You could also make your own salad, sandwiches, and snacks. If you had to work through mealtime, you could ‘save-a-meal,’ and write down your food choices to eat later. This was kind of like indicating your lunch choice at school. Instead of a cafeteria, food was prepared and cooked in the ship’s galley.
Library: The ship had a small library on board. To pass the time, many people enjoyed reading. (And for my students who live vicariously through YouTube: that sign at the bottom does say, ‘No YouTube’! Computers were available in the lab, but streaming wasn’t allowed.)
I often start the school year off with some lessons on reading and following directions. In the school setting, this is done to establish routines and expectations, as well as independence. On the ship, reading and following directions was essential for safety! Throughout the Oregon II, I encountered lots of printed information and many safety signs. Some of the signs included pictures, but many of them did not. This made me think of my readers who rely on pictures for comprehension. Some important safety information was shared verbally during our training and safety drills, but some of it could only be accessed through reading.
Without a visual aid, the reader must rely on the printed words. In this environment, skipping words, misreading words, or misunderstanding the meaning of the text could result in unsafe conditions.
On a watertight door, for example, overlooking the opposite meanings of ‘open’ and ‘closed’ could have very serious consequences.
Not being able to read the sign or the words ‘open’ and ‘closed’ could result in a scary situation.
Did You Know?
Thomas Jefferson collected fossils and owned a megalodon tooth. The Carcharocles megalodon tooth was found in South Carolina. One of the reasons why Jefferson supported expeditions to lands west of the Mississippi? He believed that a herd of mammoths might still be roaming there. Jefferson didn’t believe that animal species could go extinct, so he probably liked the idea that the megalodon was still swimming around somewhere! (There’s no scientific evidence to support the idea that either Thomas Jefferson or the megalodon are still around.)
If Sharks Disappeared written and illustrated by Lily Williams
This picture book acknowledges the scariness of sharks, but explains that a world without sharks would be even scarier. Shown through the eyes of a curious young girl and her family, the book highlights the important role that sharks play in the ocean food web. As apex predators, sharks help to keep the ocean healthy and balanced.
The book includes some mind-blowing facts, such as the concept that sharks existed on Earth before trees. Through easy-to-follow examples of cause and effect, the author and illustrator explores complex, sophisticated concepts such as overfishing, extinction, and trophic cascade. The glossary includes well-selected words that are important to know and understand about the environment. Additional information is provided about shark finning and ways to help save sharks. An author’s note, bibliography, and additional sources are also included.
If Sharks Disappeared written and illustrated by Lily Williams; Published by Roaring Brook Press, New York, 2017