Clare Wagstaff, June 2, 2008

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Clare Wagstaff
Onboard NOAA Ship John N. Cobb
June 1-14, 2008

Mission: Harbor seal pupping phenology and critical habitat study
Geographical Area: Southeast Alaska
Date: June 2, 2008

Weather Data from the Bridge 
Weather: Overcast
Visibility (nautical miles): 10
Wind Speed (knots): 12
Wave Height (feet): 1
Sea Water Temp (0C): 7
Air Temp (0C): 10.5

Science and Technology Log 

Late last night the JOHN N. COBB reached our anchor site at Tebenkof Bay (56O 23’N 134O 10’W). Situated just off the southern end of Chaptam Straight, the gentle rocking of the boat and the dull drone of the ship’s engine and generator had sent me off to sleep very quickly the night before. Keen to start the day though, and with the early morning sun shining in through my room’s porthole, I got up to a hearty breakfast and made ready to depart the COBB for a day of exploring. Around 06:30 the Chief Bosun (Joe), Dave, and I boarded the small skiff, referred to as the JC-1. The objective was to go visit known seal haulout sites that Dave had visited the year before. At each site the aim was to count the number of harbor seals present focusing particularly on the number of pups.

Equipment Required 

All of us on the JC-1 were dressed in cold weather and rain gear, even though it appeared to be a nice day, rain is always likely around this area! Dave kindly lent me his insulated Mustang survival gear to wear and I was very grateful! For conducting his research, Dave has certain pieces of equipment that he always brings when observing seals. To find the location of a known haulout site or to record the location of a newly discovered one, he has a handheld GPS that can accurately log coordinates. To observe the seals more closely Dave uses a pair of gyro-stabilized binoculars. These are essential as being on the water for most observations means the images produced through these binoculars are much clearer not as wobbly. For safety reasons, he also carries a satellite phone in case of emergencies and an PEPIRB in case of emergencies. A PEPIRB or Personal Epirb is a device that when activated, immediately notifies the US Coast Guard of your exact position by satellite. The data Dave collects is recorded on site in a waterproof notepad and through photographs that he regularly takes of the animals he observes.

An Ideal Site? 

The harbor seals typically haul out at low tide and seem to prefer sunny and warmer periods during the day, roughly between 11:00 and 16:00 hours. Unfortunately today, because of the tide cycle we were venturing out as the tide was gradually rising and much earlier in the day then is optimal to see the seals on land. However, there were a few seals present but their numbers were greatly reduced when compared to last year’s data. Dave did not seem overly concerned though because of the time of day we were making the counts. What was surprising was that certain sites we past looked like ideal locations for the seals to haulout on to. Seals like a variety of substrate (rock or sand), a reef with a steep drop off into the water, wind speed not above 35-40mph and good visibility to be able to see predators. We saw a number of sites that fit this description but there was a distinct lack of seals to be found at them, with no real explanation why. Researchers still have more to learn about seals and hopefully this cruise will add more data to help understand their behavior and choices.

Sea otters around Tebenkof Bay. Note the female in the center of the photograph carrying a baby on her stomach

Sea otters around Tebenkof Bay. The female in the center of the photograph carryies a baby on her stomach

Sea Otters 

One of the most interesting animals we observed today was a large number of sea otters. The otters regularly haul themselves out on to the rocks, like seals do, and seem to frequently be in the same area as the seals. While watching them in the water, a large number of the females were floating or swimming with a youngster on their stomachs! Otters, unlike seals, have little insulation so this technique demonstrated could be a method to protect the young from the elements and keep them safe near the parent. The key to making good observations of any of these wild animals is to approach them slowly and avoiding doing so head on. As we got closer, Jon would switch off the engine so as not to frighten or startle them. Unfortunately, when they do feel threaten, both the sea otters and harbor seals retreat back into the water. This happened on a number of occasions when we got a little too close for their comfort. This obviously makes the observations, identification and assessment of population numbers more challenging.

The entrance to Little Port Walter harbor. The ‘White House’ is where the researchers and seasonal workers live. Photograph courtesy of Dave Withrow.

The entrance to Little Port Walter harbor. The ‘White House’ is where the researchers and seasonal workers live.

Biological Field Station – Little Port Walter 

After approximately two and a half hours of observations we returned back to the COBB. The ship then set course for Little Port Walter, a NOAA Biological Field Station. It is a remote location but manned all year round. “Our nearest neighbors are only six miles away,” comments caretaker, Brad Weinlaeder. Access to this area is via boat or seaplane, so when the COBB docks here with a shipment, possibly four or five times a year, it receives a welcoming reception. Set in a beautiful bay off Chatham Strait, the residents say it gets the most rain anywhere in North America: and it is not hard to believe as a downpour starts as we arrive! The beautiful temperature rainforest around the bay is thanks to the plentiful rainfall it receives each year. But there’s a reason to have a research station in this location, and that reason is salmon. Each year the hatchery on site breeds a variety of fish for release into the wild, the most recent fish to be released where king salmon.

Tagging a Fish 

Brad Weinlaeder showing the incubation trays for the salmon eggs at the Biological Field Station at Little Port Walter.

Brad Weinlaeder showing the incubation trays for the salmon eggs at the Biological Field Station at Little Port Walter.

Although king salmon are not native to this particular section of water (the water is not cold enough), being the biggest and most rare specie of salmon gives them reasons to be studied. The eggs and sperm are collected from trapped king salmon when they reach sexual maturity and return to Little Port Walter, four to five years later. The fertilized eggs, the size of a pearl, are then incubated in early August for nine months until they are released. Unfortunately, that means that we had missed their release by just a few weeks. The process of producing these fish requires a variety of steps including identifying the fish by visual methods and internal tagging. The adipose fin (located between the dorsal and caudal fin) is simply cut off before the captive bred fish is released. Apparently this does not give the fish a survival disadvantage, but is a visual sign that it has been bred in captivity. Each fish released from the hatchery also has a small, stainless steal, identification tag placed in its nose.

When this fish returns to Little Port Walter at sexual maturity, the fish is collected and the tag removed. So small is this tag that that Brad comments, “it’s like trying to find a needle in a hay stack!” Yet this tag gives vital background information about the fish that is then used in selecting the best fish to breed with. Unfortunately removing the tag is fatally invasive. There are other methods for tracking fish that would allow it to survive such as using a small microchip, just like the ones used in identifying cats and dogs today. However, at ten times the price and requiring much more precision to insert it into the fish, is not a practical option on a large scale here. Especially as the fish are caught on their return migration and are already in the last stages of life. Held in giant fresh water tanks, the king salmon matures on a high protein pellet diet that not only they like, but so does the local bear population. It is common practice around Little Port Walter to carry a gun with rubber bullets. A wide shot fired is hopefully just enough to scare them away! This year the hatchery released 214,000 king salmon out into the wild. With an average 3% survival rate, only 1.5% will make it through their four to five year life span to return back to Little Port Walter. Fishermen will catch the other 1.5%.

Other Research 

There is a great deal of other research going on here at Little Port Walter. Currently in progress is the study of rockfish and their preferred habitat substrate in relation to predation. In the past scientists have also studied slug migration and tree ring analysis for the presence of iodine as it relates to fish populations. What makes this marine research station so important is that it has data going back to 1936, when it first opened. Researcher’s come from thousands of miles to compare what they find, to data that is already known and recorded here at Little Port Walter. Pretty fascinating stuff!

View of the hatchery where the salmon are placed when they are approximately 5-6cm long. Here they are fed and fresh water from upstream constantly flows into these holding tanks.

The hatchery where the salmon are when they are approximately 5-6cm long. They are fed and fresh water from upstream constantly flows into the holding tanks.

Personal Log 

Unfortunately, today was the day I experienced by first bout of sea-sickness! I had begun to feel that I had got my ‘sea legs’. But I had spoken too soon! After returning from our morning of observations, the COBB departed for Little Port Walter. In the late morning the ship began to cross Chatham Straight. The COBB was hitting 4-6ft high waves and crossing them at an angle called courtering. This means that the boat was yawing, which is a combination of a pitching motion (see-saw action) and rolling (side to side), basically bobbing around like a cork! As the motion got stronger, my stomach got weaker and I ended up out on the starboard deck trying to look at the horizon and stop feeling ill. Thankfully though the effects wore off quickly as the ship’s ride became smoother. Hopefully the rest of the cruise will be smoother!

Question of the Day for Miss Wagstaff’s Science Class 

Research in the field can be very different to research done in a laboratory at school. From the description written above about today’s seal study, try to think about the ways they differ. Consider such factors as time, variables, data collection etc.

Beth Carter, July 9, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Beth Carter
Onboard NOAA Ship Rainier
June 25 – July 7, 2007

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area: Gulf of Esquibel, Alaska
Date: July 9, 2007

Weather Data from Bridge 
Visibility:  6 miles
Wind direction:  135 degrees
Wind speed:  9 knots
Sea wave height: 0-1 feet
Swell wave height: none
Seawater Temperature:  12.2 degrees C
Dry Bulb: 11.1 degrees C  Wet Bulb:  11.1 degrees C
Sea level pressure:  1022.1 mb
Cloud cover: 8/8, fog & drizzle
Depth: 22.6 fathoms

This is a view of strands of kelp as seen from the launch.  Kelp appears as brown masses in thick beds.

This is a view of strands of kelp as seen from the launch. Kelp appears as brown masses in thick beds.

Science and Technology Log: 

Bull kelp…just amazing stuff.  Today I want to focus upon bull kelp and its role in the Alaskan coastal ecosystem, and its impact on hydrographers and fishermen. First of all…it is a fast-growing type of brown algae that can grow in strands from 40-65 feet long. It grows close into shore and anchors itself to rock surfaces by a root-like growth called a holdfast.  The scientific name is nereocystis leutkeana. Bull kelp has leaves called blades that grow outward from the main stem, but its most distinguishing feature is its long (2-3 feet) “bullwhip” stalks that have air bladders on their ends that can be 4” in diameter…rather like a stiff rope with a hollow onion on the end. Bull kelp can live for eight years, and reproduces via spores. Rocky substrates just off the coasts and islands of Alaska provide perfect places for the kelps’ holdfasts, and large kelp beds form in and around the islands of southeastern Alaska where the RAINIER is sailing.

In a closer view, bull kelp has some very stiff “bullwhip” like strands with air bladders on its ends.  The air bladders are hollow, and look like onions or bulbs.

Bull kelp has some very stiff “bullwhip” strands with hollow air bladders on the end that look like onions or bulbs.

Bull kelp provides food and protective cover for all types of fish, invertebrates, birds and marine mammals.  Kelp beds are literally teeming with life.  Kelp waves and moves with the currents and tides. Sea otters are the most visible of the animals who depend on kelp.  They feed off the sea urchins and other invertebrates that live at the bases of the kelp. Sea urchins feed upon the holdfasts that anchor the kelp, so the sea otters keep the urchins in check in a healthy kelp bed. The otters can be seen bobbing in the kelp, lying on their backs enjoying snacks of sea urchins, clams, etc. Commander Guy Noll of the RAINIER says that kelp is a natural navigational aid in Alaska and Pacific coastal waters. If you are in a boat of any kind and you see kelp strands on the surface of the water, stay clear. Hydrographers are not particularly fond of kelp.  On the one hand, the presence of kelp indicates a rocky bottom, which is one of the features that chartmakers want to indicate on their maps.  But.RAINIER’s launches try to stay out of kelp beds, as the kelp can become caught on the sonar transducers, which are suspended from the hulls of the boats. Kelp can also be a “heads up” that there may be a hidden rocky feature that is a danger to navigation.  The launches are very careful around kelp.

The sound waves that hydrographers use for charting can also be distorted by kelp, as it is very dense in its coverage. Also, the whips and floating blade “bladders are hollow, so the echoes do not reach the underlying rocky ground. NOAA sometimes has to send divers down to get a least depth in kelpy areas, and diving in kelp is difficult because of entanglement issues. Fishermen give kelp beds a wide berth to avoid fouling their nets and equipment in the heavy, leafy, stalky bull kelp. However, they will sometimes try to trawl near kelp beds, as the kelp provides excellent cover for salmon and other fish as they hide from orcas and other predators.

Small leaves, or blades of bull kelp washed into shore add decorations to the black pebble beaches.

Small leaves, or blades of bull kelp washed into shore add decorations to the black pebble beaches.

Personal Log 

I became fascinated by kelp last week as I kayaked through some island passages that were thick with kelp. As you look into the water, you see dozens, hundreds of small snails on the blades of the kelp…I think they were black turban snails.  I tasted some of the kelp and found it, predictably…salty!  It was also chewy and gummy and difficult to swallow. Perhaps there are wonderful ways to prepare kelp to eat, but out of the water as a snack – not for me. From the launches, it is fun to see the sea otters’ heads pop up in and near the kelp beds. They manage to get their heads and shoulders out of the water…they must be standing on the kelp to get such a clear look at us! Several of the moms we saw had babies hitching rides on their bellies, or perhaps nursing. They are unbelievably cute and quick, and I am too slow to get good photographs of them.


Early in the trip, I wrote about the GPS, Global Positioning Satellites, and stated that there are 11 in geosynchronous orbits above the earth.  I looked up GPS on the NOAA website and found that there are 24 satellites, so I stand corrected!

Questions of the Day

1. What do you think would be the environmental impact of an oil spill on or near the rocky coasts of Alaska?  

2. What effects would it have on kelp beds? If you want a real life example of what could and has happened, “Google” the story of the Exxon Valdez, which created a huge oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska in 1989.

* Note: Commander Guy Noll explained that the RAINIER was one of the responding vessels after the Valdez oil spill. RAINIER did the hydrographic work needed by the Navy ships that did the cleanup. At that time, the world’s focus turned upon Prince William Sound, and as the RAINIER did the surveying, they discovered many chart errors. They spent a great deal of time surveying the area, and provided more accurate charts for the cruise ships and tourists that became interested in the beautiful area in and around Prince William Sound.

This sea otter mom and baby are floating near a kelp bed. This photograph is courtesy of Ensign Tim Smith, an excellent officer and photographer on the RAINIER.

Sea otter mom and baby are floating near a kelp bed. Photograph courtesy of Ensign Tim Smith.

Christy Garvin, June 3, 2005

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Christy Garvin
Onboard NOAA Ship Rainier
June 1 – 8, 2005

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area: Aleutian Islands, AK
Date: June 3, 2005

Sea otters drifting amidst the kelp

Sea otters drifting amidst the kelp

Weather from the Bridge

Latitude: 56 deg 59 min N
Longitude: 135 deg 17 min W
Visibility:12 nautical miles
Wind Direction: 275 deg
Wind Speed: 10 kts
Sea Wave Height: 1-2 ft
Swell Wave Height: 0 ft (we are in a protected bay)
Sea Water Temperature: 54deg F
Sea Level Pressure: 1016 mb

Science and Technology Log 

Today work began at 0800; four launches were deployed to run survey lines and take bottom samples.  I was assigned to launch RA2, a jet propulsion boat.  We worked an area on survey sheet Z near Low Island and Kruzof; this area is northwest of Sitka near the base of the volcano Edgecomb.

As was discussed yesterday, running survey lines is one of the most important tasks accomplished by the RAINIER.  After technicians have completed all of the preparation work in the plot room, it is time for the launch to be deployed. Many different people play a part in preparing the launch for a day of work.  Deck hands make sure the boat is fueled and has necessary supplies, engineers check the engines and electrical equipment, and the kitchen staff prepares lunch, snacks, and beverages for the crew to take aboard.  At 0745 the deck crew meets the survey crew on the fantail (back deck) of the ship.  The deck crew then lowers the launch using the gravity falls davit, and the survey crew climbs aboard their launch.  Once underway, each launch calls the bridge to inform the officer on watch that the launch is underway with all assigned crewmembers on board.

When the launch reaches its work area, the first thing that must be accomplished is a CTD cast. A CTD is a device that measures the conductivity, temperature, and depth of the water. This information is used to create a sound profile that shows how fast sound travels in the water at various depths.  This is extremely important to know, because the different refractions must be accounted for when data is processed.

The procedure for casting a CTD is relatively simple.  First, the CTD is attached to a rope and turned on for a 3-minute warm-up period.  During this time, the CTD is being calibrated to the air pressure. When the 3-minute warm-up is complete, the CTD is submerged just under the surface of the water for 2 minutes; this allows the machine to calibrate to the water temperature at the surface.  Finally, the device is lowered to the ocean floor and the raised back to the surface.  Once at the surface, the data is downloaded from the CTD to the specialized computer software used aboard the launches. Once this procedure is complete, it is time to begin running survey lines.

Personal Log 

One of the neatest things that happened today was a sea otter spotting. As we were working survey lines around some kelp beds, we noticed 10-15 sea otters playing in the beds. They were very cute, and it was an excellent opportunity to observe them in the wild.

Question of the day: What is refraction? 

Previous question of the day: What is a CTD? Answer: A CTD is a device that measures conductivity, temperature, and depth.  Before a launch uses its SWMB (Shallow Water Multi Beam), the crew must cast a CTD to gather information about how sound waves are being diffracted due to the pressure and temperature at various depths.