Emilisa Saunders: Sargassum City, May 25, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Emilisa Saunders
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
May 14 2013 – May 30, 2013

Mission: SEAMAP Spring Plankton Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Saturday, May 25 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge: Wind speed 15.7 knots; Surface water temperature 25.40 degrees Celsius; Air temperature 26.3 degrees Celsius; Relative humidity 85%; Barometric pressure 1017.3 mb

Holding the line
Holding the line as the MOCNESS goes in.

Science and Technology Log:

For the last couple of days, as the ship moves toward Texas, we’ve encountered lots of sargassum.  Sargassum is a type of macroalgae, or seaweed.  Some types of sargassum are benthic; as you remember, this means they live and grow on the bottom of the ocean.  Out here on the Oregon II, we’re seeing  planktonic  sargassum – the drifting kind – and lots of it.  This sargassum drifts around the surface of the Gulf, thanks to the tiny, air-filled float pods all throughout its leaves.  When pieces of sargassum meet up, they become entangled and start to drift together.  Before long, vast blankets or mats of sargassum form.  We’ve seen some impressive mats in the past few days, some almost as long as the ship itself!

Sargassum
Blanket of sargassum
Sargassum
Sargassum City

These mats create a bit of a challenge when it comes to dropping the nets.  The Bongo Net and the Subsurface Neuston stay below the surface, so typically they don’t catch much sargassum, unless some slips in just as the nets enter or leave the water.  However, the regular Neuston net stays on the surface for the duration of the drop.  This is a perfect opportunity for sargassum to slide right in.  Ideally, we want this net submerged for 10 minutes, but when the sargassum is thick, we have to cut this down to five.  Even then, we’ve had as much as 30 gallons of sargassum show up in one drop.

Handful of sargassum
You can find so much life in one handful of sargassum

When we get sargassum, we have to spray it off with sea water and sort through it to collect any plankton that are tangled in the leaves.  This is quite a bit of work when we get a lot of sargassum, but I have come to really enjoy it because of the amazing little creatures that we find.  A piece of sargassum can be like a little city, teeming with life, with a large variety of species.  Many of these are big enough that you can easily see them with the naked eye.  These sargassum communities contain everything that their residents need to survive, including a food web and plenty of shelter.  It’s also a great lesson in adaptation.  The animals that live in sargassum blend in so well that we have to look very carefully to find them.  Most of them are either transparent, or they exactly match the color of the seaweed, and there are tons of nooks and crannies for hiding.

Here are just a few of the delightful little animals that we’ve found in the sargassum:

Sargassum fish:  These little guys are pretty amazing.  They look fairly harmless, but they are actually ambush predators.  They have two small foot-like fins on their undersides, which they use to move around and perch in one place in the seaweed.  When a smaller animal comes close, the sargassum fish open their mouths wide and suck the unsuspecting prey in, just like a vacuum cleaner.  They’ll even eat other, smaller sargassum fish!  Some of them even have a piece of flesh called an esca that dangles from their head, which they use as a lure to attract prey.

Sargassum fish
A large sargassum fish from a Neuston net. See the little pectoral fin “feet?”
Small sargassum fish
This is the typical size for the sargassum fish that we’ve found (about one inch).

Sargassum swimming crabs:  These tiny crabs are capable of walking on land, but they are also excellent swimmers, thanks to their paddle-shaped back legs.  They are also ambush predators; they stalk smaller sargassum dwellers and give their prey a nasty jab to catch and kill them.

Sargassum swimming crab
Sargassum swimming crab. See its paddle-shaped hind feet?

Sargassum nudibranch:  Nudibranchs are a type of mollusk that have a shell in their juvenile stage, but lose the shell as they mature.  Sargassum nudibranchs are so well camouflaged that we sometimes feel their soft bodies in the sargassum before we see them.  They stay mainly in the sargassum, but if they happen to get washed out, they can flex their bodies back and forth to swim back to the seaweed.  It’s really quite amazing to watch!

Sargassum nudibranch
A little sargassum nudibranch. Looks like a blob here, but they are very graceful swimmers!

Challenge Yourself:  Hey there, Nature Exchange traders!  Can you think of an animal that blends into its environment in the Mojave Desert?  What about a creature that is an ambush predator?  Draw a picture or write down some facts and bring it in to the Nature Exchange for bonus points.  Be sure to tell them that Emmi sent you!

Personal Log:

Yesterday, I saw some evidence of the impact that we have on our oceans.  While sorting through some sargassum, I found a plastic ribbon with a balloon fragment attached wrapped around a piece of sargassum.  We were hundreds of miles from shore when I found it.  It was sad for me to see a piece of human trash tangled around this little sargassum community.  I know it’s still pretty common for people to organize balloon releases to honor a special person or occasion, but I wonder if there might be another way to do so.  Maybe instead of a balloon release, we can plant some trees, release ladybugs in a garden, organize a clean-up day at a local trail or park, etc.  All of these things could impact the environment in a positive way.  Just something to think about.

Trash in the Sargassum
A piece of balloon and ribbon tangled up in the sargassum.

Now that I have adjusted to working the midnight to noon shift on the Oregon II, I am finding that I really enjoy it.  In the past few days as we’ve approached a full moon, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the moon reflect on the water, making it look like liquid mercury.  For the first several days of this cruise, the sky was so dark that we could only see as far as the ship’s lights would allow, and maybe the distant lights from an oil rig or two.  It was the darkest dark I’ve ever seen.  Now, the moon lights up the sky enough that we can actually see the horizon.  Then, a few hours into the shift, we get to watch the sun rise, which is spectacular every time.  I’ve taken so many pictures of the sunrise, I can’t choose a favorite!

Sunrise
Sunrise on the Gulf of Mexico

We’re in the last few days of the survey, and we’ve taken the turn back east now.  Until next time, be sure to track the Oregon II here: NOAA Ship Tracker

Emilisa Saunders: We Do Science Here! May 21, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Emilisa Saunders
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
May 14, 2013 to May 30, 2013

Mission: SEAMAP Spring Plankton Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Weather Data: Wind speed: 19.02 knots; Surface water temp.: 24.7 degrees C; Air temp: 25.7 degrees C: Relative humidity: 91%; Barometric pressure: 1007.4 mb.

Science and Technology Log:

Plankton jar
A nice jar of plankton from an early morning tow.

Getting just one small jar of plankton back to the lab on shore requires a lot of work. First comes all of the net-dropping work I described in the last post, which is a team effort from everyone on board, just to bring the samples onto the ship. From there, we have to take several more steps in order to preserve the sample.

Step 1: After the nets are brought back onto the bow of the ship, we hose them down very thoroughly using a seawater hose, in order to wash any clinging plankton down into the cod end.

Here I am, hosing down the Bongo nets. Photo by Alonzo Hamilton
Here I am, hosing down the Bongo nets. Photo by Alonzo Hamilton

Then we detach the cod end and bring it to the stern of the ship, where a prep station is set up. The prep table is stocked with funnels, sieves, seawater hoses and jars, and the chemicals that we need to preserve the plankton that we collect – formalin and ethyl alcohol.

Prep station
Prep Station

Step 2: We carefully pour the specimen through the fine-mesh sieve to catch the plankton and drain out the water. It’s amazing to see what’s in the sample. This, of course, includes lots of tiny plankton; all together, they look kind of like sludge, until you look very closely to see the individual creatures. Lots of the fish larvae have tiny, bright blue eyes. (On a funny note, my breakfast granola has started to look like plankton after a week of collecting!)

Plankton in a sieve
Plankton in a sieve

Getting to see what makes it into each sample is kind of like a treasure hunt.  Sometimes bigger organisms like fish, sea jellies, eel larvae, pyrosomes and snails end up in the sample. Quite frequently there is sargassum, which is a type of floating seaweed that does a great job of hiding small creatures. Take a look at the pictures at the end of the post to see some of these!

Step 3: Next, the sample goes into a jar. We use seawater from a hose to push the sample to one side of the sieve, and let the water drain out. Then, we put a funnel in a clean, dry jar and use a squeeze bottle of ethyl alcohol to wash the sample into the jar through the funnel. We top the jar off with ethyl alcohol, which draws the moisture out of the bodies of the plankton so that they don’t decompose or rot in the jar. The sample from the left bongo – just this sample and no other – is preserved in a mixture of formalin and seawater because it goes through different testing than the other samples do once back on shore. We top all of the bottles with a lid and label them: R for Right Bongo, L for Left Bongo, RN for Regular Neuston, and SN for Subsurface Neuston.

plankton
Plankton Ready to go in the Jar

Step 4: After the jars are filled, Alonzo and I bring them back to the wet lab, where Glenn attaches labels to the tops of the jars, and puts a matching label inside of each jar as well. The label inside the jar is there in case the label on the lid falls off one day.  These labels provide detailed information about where and when the sample was collected, and from which net.

Plankton jar label
A label on the jar gives detailed information about the plankton inside

Step 5: After 24 hours, it’s time to do transfers. Transfers involve emptying the samples from the jars through a sieve again, and putting them back into the jars with fresh ethyl alcohol. We do this because the alcohol draws water out of the bodies of the plankton, so the alcohol becomes watered-down in the first 24 hours and is not as effective. Adding fresh alcohol keeps the sample from going bad before it can be studied. Once the transfers are done, we draw a line through the label to show that the sample is well-preserved and ready to be boxed up and brought back to the lab!

Jars of Plankton
Boxes full of plankton samples ready to be brought back to shore

Personal Log:

I have the great fortune of working with some intelligent, knowledgeable and friendly scientists here on the Oregon II.  Jana is my bunkmate and one of the scientists; she pointed out to me that just about every animal you can imagine that lives in the ocean started off as plankton. As a result, while the scientists who work with plankton do each have a specialty or specific type of plankton that they focus on, at the same time, they have to know a little bit about many types of organisms and the basics of all of their life cycle stages. In a way I can relate to this as a Naturalist; I need to have a bit of knowledge about many plants, animals, minerals and fossils from the Mojave Desert and beyond, because chances are, my smart and curious Nature Exchange traders will eventually bring them all in for me to see and identify!

Team Plankton
The science team, from left to right: Andy, Alonzo, Glenn, me, Jana and Brittany.  Photo by Brian Adornado

I want to take a few moments to introduce all of the members of the science team. I thought I’d have fun with it and use my own version of the Pivot questionnaire:

Meet Alonzo Hamilton

Alonzo Hamilton
Alonzo Hamilton, scientist, testing water samples in the Wet Lab.

Alonzo is a Research Fisheries Biologist; he has been working with NOAA since 1984.  Alonzo earned an Associate’s degree in Science, a Bachelor’s degree in biology, and a Master’s degree in Biology with an emphasis in Marine Science.  Alonzo was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Mississippi.

What is your favorite word? Data

What is your least favorite word? No or can’t.  There’s always a solution; you just have to keep trying until you find it.

What excites you about doing science? Discovery

What do you dislike about doing science? The financial side of it.

What is your favorite plankton? Tripod fish plankton

What sound or noise on the ship do you love? The main engines

What sound or noise do you hate? The alarm bells

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? An electrician.  There are some neat jobs in that field.

What profession would you not like to do? Lawyer.  There’s a risk of becoming too jaded.

If you could talk to any marine creature, which one would it be, and what would you ask it? A coelacanth.  What is your life history?  What’s a typical day of feeding like?  Is there a hierarchy of fish, and what is it?  What determines who gets to eat first?

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Meet Glenn Zapfe

Zapfe
Glenn Zapfe, scientist, contemplating the plankton samples.

Glenn is a Research Fisheries Biologist; he worked with NOAA as a contractor for 8 years before being hired on as a Federal employee three years ago.  Glenn earned a Bachelor’s degree in Marine Life, and a Master’s degree in Coastal Science.  He grew up in the Chicago area.

What is your favorite word? Quirky

What is your least favorite word? Nostalgia

What excites you about doing science? Going to sea and seeing organisms in their natural environment.

What do you dislike about doing science? Statistics.  They can sometimes be manipulated to fit individual needs.

What is your favorite plankton? Amphipods

What sound or noise on the ship do you love? The hum of the engine

What sound or noise do you hate? The emergency alarm bells

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Glenn grew up wanting to be a cartoonist – but he can’t draw.

What profession would you not like to do? Lawyer

If you could talk to any marine creature, which one would it be, and what would you ask it? A cuttlefish, to ask about how they are able to change the color of their skin.

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Meet Jana Herrmann

Jana Herrmann
Jana Hermann, scientist and volunteer, aboard the Oregon II

Jana is a Fisheries Technician with the Gulf Coast Research Lab, and is on this cruise as a volunteer.  She has worked with the Gulf Coast Research Lab since February 2013, but worked within the local Marine Sciences field for 8 years before that.   Jana earned a Bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology and Environmental biology, and will be starting graduate school in the fall of 2013.  Jana grew up in Tennessee.

What is your favorite word? Pandemonium

What is your least favorite word? Anything derogatory

What excites you about doing science? Just when you think you have it all figured out, something new comes up.

What do you dislike about doing science? Dealing with bureaucracy and having to jump through hoops to get the work done.

What is your favorite plankton? Janthina

What sound or noise on the ship do you love? This is Jana’s first cruise on the Oregon II, so she doesn’t have a favorite noise yet.

What sound or noise do you hate? Any noises that keep her from sleeping.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? A baker or pastry chef.

What profession would you not like to do? Any mundane office job with no creative outlet.

If you could talk to any marine creature, which one would it be, and what would you ask it? She would ask a blue whale if it is sad about the state of the environment, and she would ask it if mermaids are real.

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Meet Brittany Palm

Brittany Palm
Brittany Palm, scientist, aboard the Oregon II

Brittany is a Research Fisheries Biologist; she has worked with NOAA for 4 years.  Brittany earned a Bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology, and is currently working on her Master’s degree in Marine Science.  Brittany grew up on Long Island.

What is your favorite word? Midnattsol – the Norwegian word for “midnight sun”

What is your least favorite word? Editing.  That’s not a fun word to hear when you hand in drafts of your thesis!

What excites you about doing science?  Constantly learning.  All of the fields of science, from chemistry to physics to biology, are interwoven.  You have to know a little bit about all of them.

What do you dislike about doing science?  Also, constantly learning!  Every time you think you know something, a new paper comes out.

What is your favorite plankton? Glaucus

What sound or noise on the ship do you love?  The ship’s sound signal, which is a deep, booming horn that ships use to communicate with each other.

What sound or noise do you hate? When she’s trying to sleep in rough seas and something in one of the drawers is rolling back and forth.  She has to get up and go through all of the drawers and cabinets to try to find it and make it stop!

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Opening a dance studio.  Brittany competed on dance teams throughout high school and college.

What profession would you not like to do? Anything in the health field, because she empathizes more with animals than people.

If you could talk to any marine creature, which one would it be, and what would you ask it?  The Croaker fish.  Brittany is studying Croaker diets and has dissected over a thousand stomachs.  She would like to be able to just ask them what they eat!

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Meet Andy Millett

Andy Millett
Andy Millett, scientist, in the Dry Lab of the Oregon II.

Andy is a Research Fisheries Biologist, and is the Field Party Chief for this cruise.  He has worked with NOAA for 3 years.  He has a bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology and a Master’s degree in Marine Science.  Andy grew up in Massachusetts.

What is your favorite word? Parallel

What is your least favorite word? Silly

What excites you about doing science?  When all of the data comes together and tells you a story.

What do you dislike about doing science?  Having to be so organized and meticulous, since he is typically pretty disorganized.

What is your favorite plankton? Pelagia

What sound or noise on the ship do you love?  Spinning the flowmeters on the nets.  It sounds like a card in the spokes of a bicycle.

What sound or noise do you hate?  Alarms of any kind, whether they are emergency alarms or alarm clocks.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Video game designer

What profession would you not like to do? Anything in retail or customer service

If you could talk to any marine creature, which one would it be, and what would you ask it?  A giant squid, because we don’t know much about them.  Andy would ask what it eats, where it lives, and other basic questions about its life.

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Challenge Yourself:  Hey, Nature Exchange traders!  The scientists shared their favorite plankton types; all of them are truly fascinating in their own way.  Research one of these animals and write down a few facts.  Or, pick your favorite Mojave Desert animal and write about that.  Bring your research into the Nature Exchange for bonus points.  Tell them Emmi sent you!

Don’t forget to track the Oregon II here: NOAA Ship Tracker

Animals We’ve Seen (and one plant):

Bristletooth Conger Eel Larva
Bristletooth Conger Eel Larva.  See its tiny little face on the left?
Sargassum
Sargassum is a floating seaweed that often ends up in our Neuston nets. We record its volume and throw it back.
Sea Jelly
Sea jelly
Sargassum fish
Sargassum fish – they hide in the sargassum!
Porpita jelly
Porpita jelly
Myctophid
Myctophids are shiny silver and black, and quite pretty!
Flying fish
A juvenile flying fish. I’ve seen some adults gliding through the air as well!
Filefish
Alonzo holding a juvenile filefish

Taylor Parker, April 27, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Taylor Parker
Onboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette
April 19-29, 2009 

Mission: Hawaii Bottom fish Survey
Geographical Area: South side of Oahu
Date: April 27, 2009

Weather Data 
Partially cloudy.
Minimal Winds.
Air temp: 75F.

Scientists deploying the CTD
Scientists deploying the CTD

Science and Technology Log 

Similar to the smaller CTD that we dropped from the SAFE boats, there is a much larger one on the Sette that is dropped almost nightly. The large CTD is different in several ways: it drops to a depth of 6800 meters while the smaller one will only go 600 and the larger CTD can measure many more components. It determines conductivity, temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and flourescence. Conductivity is the amount of electrical current allowed within the sample, salinity is then measured by the conductivity and temperature, dissolved oxygen is the amount of oxygen found within between the water molecules and fluorescence is, well, exciting. Flourescence is the measurement of chlorophyll at different depths; to do this a little LED light is shone into the water to see the excitability of the algae. Determining the amount of chlorophyll, and subsequently the amount of algae, helps to, among other things, measure the amount of the oceans ability to absorb greenhouse gases.

Prior to the departure of the cruise, the scientists set up sampling sites along transects on a grid system near shore off the Kona coast. They are compiling data over the years to analyze changes in the physical characteristics of the ocean. This part of the research aboard the Sette is really interesting and the impacts of the data are obvious. However, there wasn’t much for me to do with this other than take photos of the Science Techs do their job and ask them questions. That is quite alright though; I lost a couple hooks while bottom-fishing but I don’t think that I want to be responsible for losing that big piece of equipment.

A Sample of the Marine Debris Encountered
A Sample of the Marine Debris Encountered

Earlier in the day, I was participating in the routine I/K trawl and we came across a slick that had perfect conditions for the billfish we were looking for. We dropped the net and slowly came upon the slick. We set everything in the water and even put the safety line across up. Within ten minutes the entire trawl was filled with marine debris, it was filled with trash. Debris accumulation is apparently normal for slicks; along with being an area where small fish can be found, the same ocean currents bring planktonic debris. And, according to the scientists who study billfish, it is good habitat for fish larvae. Not this time. This time the whole net was filled with trash and very little of anything else. We started going through it and found a crab and a shrimp and pounds of plastic. We collected everything and dropped the net in again hoping to keep it down there longer. While the remaining trawls were less trashy, there were still significant amounts of litter strewn about.

Personal Log 

The large CTD required trained professionals so I sat back and watched the two techs maneuver the large instrument. I spoke with them after to understand what they were doing. What I found most interesting was the use of the fluorometer to help measure the ocean’s ability to absorb greenhouse gases. Considering the challenges facing our planet and oceans, this is incredible data that they are collecting and when the results are analyzed, I can’t wait to see what they read.

Sargassum fish
Sargassum fish

Another challenge is one that we faced when trying to run I/K trawls. The amount of litter in the oceans is staggering. I have worked on many beach cleanups and have run tons of classes, educating hundreds of kids about the importance of watershed responsibility. Seeing the garbage floating freely in the water, clogging the runways of slow currents in the oceans is depressing. Talking with the other scientists they suggested I take a look at NOAA’s Marine Debris Program. This is a very useful and informative website describing the many factors of trash in the ocean: awareness and information about hazards, education, removal projects, etc. This is a very pressing problem considering debris, and specifically small plastics that look like food, is found everywhere where the ocean touches shore.

Animals Seen Today 
Like I said, we were picking up mostly trash in our trawls and the CTD doesn’t pick up many animals. One of the small boats did happen to pick up a kind of Frogfish called a Sargassum fish (Histrio histrio). I was reading about them and apparently they have one of the smallest brains in proportion to their body and they are highly cannibalistic.