Alicia Gillean: Strange Ocean Critters and Science at Sea, July 3, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Alicia Gillean
Aboard R/V Hugh R. Sharp
June 27 – July 7, 2012


Mission:  Sea Scallop Survey
Geographical area of cruise: North Atlantic; Georges Bank
Date: Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 41 13.20 N
Longitude: 066 35.21 W
Relative Wind Speed: 2.3 Knots
Air Temperature: 18.72 degrees C
Humidity: 78%
Surface Seawater Temperature: 15 degrees C

Science and Technology Log

The HabCam-ing and dredging continue here in the North Atlantic in calm seas and clear skies!

Alicia Star Oddi
Alicia installing sensor on dredge

I learned a new part of the data collection process with the dredge.  Each time the dredge goes out, a sensor that tracks the pitch and roll (side to side and up and down movement) of the dredge on the ocean floor needs to be installed on the dredge.  When the trawl is complete, the sensor is removed and the data is uploaded to the computer.  It is automatically plotted on a line graph that visually tells the story of the dredge’s movement on the ocean floor.  This data is eventually combined with all the other data gathered at each dredge station.  Installing and removing the sensor has been my job for the last couple of shifts.  To do this, I have to climb up on the sorting table when the dredge is first brought to the surface, remove a metal pin and plastic holder that keeps the sensor in place, remove the old sensor and add a new sensor, then reinstall the holder and pin.  This all happens before they dump the dredge. On a funny note, on my way to the sorting table to add the sensor to the dredge earlier today, I managed to trip on a hose that was on deck and turn it on, watering myself and the lab technician that was on the deck with me and entertaining everyone else watching, I’m sure!  Luckily, we were all wearing our foul weather gear, so no one was soaked!!

It’s interesting to experience all the different pieces that make a successful dredge tow.  Before coming to sea, I guess I just assumed that you lowered a big net to the ocean floor and hoped to catch something.  I had no concept of how methodical and detailed each deployment of the dredge really is, from the locations, to the timing, to the number of people involved, to the detailed data collection.  The process is still being refined, even on this third leg of the sea scallop survey.  One of the scientists on my watch is an engineer who helped design and build the latest version of HabCam.  When a part that holds the sensor in the dredge was not working correctly, he was asked to use his engineering skills to create a better way to hold the sensor, so he made the needed modifications right on the ship.

Day shift starting to sort a dredge haul

While sorting the haul from dredging stations, I sometimes run across ocean critters that I’ve never seen before.  I usually set these to the side to snap a picture after we finish sorting and to ask a scientist, usually Karen or Sean, to identify it for me.  It turns out that the strange hairy, oval-shaped creature I keep running across is a type of worm called a sea mouse. In my pictures it looks like a grassy ball of mud, but it’s much more interesting in person, I promise!  I consulted a field guide in the dry lab to learn a little more about it.  Its scientific name is Aphrodita hastate and it is usually about 6 inches by 3 inches and can be green, gold, or brown.  There are 15 gills hidden under the bristly fur.  They like muddy areas and often live in the very deep parts of the ocean, so they are only seen when brought up with a dredge or after being tossed ashore in a storm.  I haven’t seen any of them in the HabCam images, so I’m wondering if they tend to burrow in the mud, if their camouflage skills are really impressive, or if we just haven’t flown over any. The HabCam moves so quickly (remember, it takes 6 pictures per second) that it’s impossible to see everything in enough time to figure out what it is.


Sea mouse
Belly of a sea mouse

Another item that keeps coming up in the dredge looks like a clump of pasta shells and cheese and it crumbles easily.  My initial guess was that it is some type of sponge, but I was wrong. It turns out these are moon snail egg cases. Once I’m back ashore, I think I’ll have to find out more about these.

moon snail eggs
Moon snail eggs

We’ve seen lots of sea stars, scallops, sand dollars, crabs, clams, hermit crabs, flounder, several species of fish called hake, and skates (relative of the stingray) in the dredge hauls.  We’ve also seen most of these on the ocean floor with the HabCam.  One of the scientists found a whale vertebrae (part of the backbone) while sorting. It’s at least a foot and a half wide and 8 inches high! Can you imagine the size of the whale when it was alive?  Each haul usually has a monkfish or two in it.  I’ve heard that these fish are pretty tasty, but they sure look mean!  I was warned early on to keep my hands away from their mouths unless I want to get bitten!


Alicia with monkfish
Alicia with monkfish

Today is supposed to be a day of mainly flying the HabCam, so I’m hoping to be able to interview a few people on the ship about their jobs for use back at school when I’m not flying the HabCam or co-piloting.

Sea stars
Pretty sea stars that came up in the dredge

Personal Log

I ate my first real meal in the galley tonight and it was pretty tasty!  The steward, Paul, has worked on this ship for eight years and seems to have cooking a sea down to a science.  He has to work and sleep some unusual hours to keep everyone aboard well-fed, but he does it with a smile on his face.  Between the meals, snacks, and limited space to exercise, I imagine that keeping fit while at sea for long periods of time can be a challenge. There is a stationary bike next to the washer and dryer, but other than that you have to be creative with getting your exercise.  I saw one crew member on the deck this morning with a yoga mat doing crunches and using a storage container to do tricep dips.  He said that it’s a challenge, but that you can find ways to keep in shape at sea if it’s a priority for you.

I actually slept better the first few days at sea when I was seasick than I do now that I’m feeling better, thanks to the anti-nausea medication, I expect.  I’ve found that earplugs are essential for catching sleep aboard the ship when I’m not medicated!  There is one washer and dryer aboard the ship and I’ve had a bit of trouble finding a time when it’s not in use, so I decided to do my laundry at 5 am a day or so ago when I was having trouble sleeping. I figured I may as well use insomnia to my advantage and it was so nice to use a towel that is finally completely dry for the first time in a week!

There are 22 people aboard this ship; 12 scientists and 10 crew members.   Four of the scientists and two of the crew are women.  Because of watch schedules, most of the time I see only two other women while I’m awake.  All that to say, the ship is a pretty male-dominated arena, with lots of ESPN, toilet seats left up, and guy humor.  I feel very welcome aboard the ship, but I find that I spend most of my down time doing my own thing, like working on this blog or just enjoying the view, since I’m not much of a movie or sports watcher.  With fabulous views of the Atlantic Ocean and beautiful weather, this doesn’t bother me a bit!  In fact, I find that I see the most animals swimming in the ocean during these down times.  Today it was a huge group of jellyfish swimming next to the ship!

I’m still enjoying my time at sea and am looking forward to learning even more in my last few days.

View from science lab
View from the science lab at night

Alicia Gillean: Adventures in Dredging; July 1, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Alicia Gillean
Aboard R/V Hugh R. Sharp
June 27 – July 7, 2012


Mission:  Sea Scallop Survey
Geographical area of cruise: North Atlantic; Georges Bank
Date: Sunday, July 1, 2012

Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 40 48.43 N
Longitude: 068 04.06W
Relative Wind Speed: 8.9 Knots
Air Temperature: 17.61 degrees C
Humidity: 92%
Surface Seawater Temperature: 16 degrees C

Science and Technology Log

Dump dredge
Dumping dredge onto sorting table

My last shifts have been a mix of HabCam work and dredging. Remember, dredging is when we drag a heavy-duty net along the ocean floor for fifteen minutes, then bring it up and record what ocean critters we catch.  Dredging involves a lot more physical work and is much dirtier than flying the HabCam, so time goes much faster when we are dredging and it’s exciting to see what we will catch.  However, it is also kind of sad to see all the animals we bring up in the dredge, because most of them are dead or will soon be dead.  You can watch a video about sea scallop dredging here and here.

There are three two-week legs to this sea scallop survey.  I am on the last leg.  Before the first leg began, a computer program, with the assistance of a few people, decided which spots in the sea scallop habitat we should dredge and fly the HabCam.  These points were all plotted on a computerized map and the chief scientist connects the dots and decides the best route for the ship to take to make it to all the designated stations in the available time.

Here’s how our typical dredging process works:

About 10 minutes before we reach a dredge station, the Captain radios the lab from the Bridge (fancy name for the place at the top of the ship where the Captain and his crew work their magic) to let us know we are approaching our station.  At this point, I get on a computer in the dry lab to start a program that keeps track of our dredge position, length of tow, etc.  I enter data about the weather and check the depth of our dredge station.  When the engineer and Captain are ready, they radio the lab and ask for our depth and how much wire they need to send out to lower the dredge to the ocean floor.  I get the wire length from a chart hanging in the dry lab that is based on the depth of the ocean at the dredge site and use the radio to tell the engineer, who lets out that amount of wire until the dredge is on the ocean floor.  When the dredge hits the ocean floor, I use the computer program to start timing for 15 minutes and notify them when it is time to bring the dredge back up.

Alicia sorting fish
Alicia sorting the haul

The lab technicians and engineer raise and dump the dredge on a giant metal table, then secure it for the scientists to come in and begin sorting the haul.  Meanwhile, the scientists get dressed in foul weather gear to prepare for the messy job ahead.  That means I’m wearing yellow rubber overalls, black steel-toed rubber boots, blue rubber gloves, and a lovely orange lifejacket for each dredge.  Sometimes I add a yellow rubber jacket to the mix, too.  Science is not a beauty contest and I’m grateful for the protection!  Each scientist grabs two orange baskets, one large white bucket, and one small white bucket and heads to the table. The lab technicians shovel the catch toward each scientist as we sort.  Scallops go in one orange basket, fish go in the white bucket, crabs go in the small white bucket (sometimes), and everything else goes into the other orange basket.  This is considered “trash” and is thrown back overboard, but the watch chief keeps track of how many baskets of “trash” are thrown overboard during each haul and enters it into a computer database along with other data. After sorting the haul, much of the data collection takes place in lab called a “van”.

Research Van
Research “van” where we gather data from haul

The fish are sorted by species, counted, weighed, sometimes measured, and entered into a special computer system that tracks data from the hauls.  Sometimes we also collect and count crabs and sea stars.  The baskets of sea scallops are counted and weighed, and then individual scallops are measured on a special magnetic measuring board.  You lay the scallop on the measuring board, touch the magnet to the board at the end of the scallop, and the length is automatically entered into the database.    Some hauls have lots of sea scallops and some don’t have very many.  We had a couple hauls that were almost completely sand dollars and one that was almost completely sea stars.  I learned that sea stars can be quite slimy when they are stressed. I had no idea!

Sand dollar dresge
Dredge haul with LOTS of sand dollars

Sometimes my watch chief, Sean, will select a subsample of five sea scallops for us to scrub clean with a wire brush.

Alicia scrub scallops
Alicia scrubbing scallops at about 11pm

Next, we weigh and measure all five sea scallops before cutting them open to determine the gender.  We remove the gonad (the reproductive organ) and weigh it, then do the same with the “meat” (the muscle that allows the scallop to open and close its shell and the part people like to eat).  All of this information is recorded and each scallop is given a number.  We write the number on each shell half and bag and tag the shells.  The shells and data will be given to a scientist on shore that has requested them for additional research.  The scallop shells can be aged by counting the rings, just like counting the rings on a tree.

Alicia scrub scallops 2
Scrubbing scallops is dirty work!

Meanwhile, other people are hosing off the deck, table, buckets, and baskets used.  The dredge ends by shucking the scallops and saving the meat for meals later.  A successful dredge requires cooperation and communication between scientists, lab technicians, the Captain, and the crew. It requires careful attention to detail to make sure the data collected is accurate. It also requires strategic planning before the voyage even begins.  It’s an exciting process to be a part of and it is interesting to think about the different types of information that can be collected about the ocean from the HabCam versus the dredge.

Personal Log

Hallway to shower
Hallway to the shower and bathroom

Living on a ship is kind of like living in a college dorm again: shared room with bunkbeds, communal shower and bathroom down the hall, and meals prepared for you.  I can’t speak to the food prepared by the steward (cook) Paul, as I haven’t been able to eat much of it yet (I’m finally starting to get a handle on the seasickness, but I’m not ready for tuna steaks and lima beans just yet), but I do appreciate that the galley (mess hall) is open all the time for people to rummage through the cabinets for crackers, cereal, and other snacks. There’s even an entire freezer full of ice cream sandwiches, bars, etc.  If my husband had known about the ice cream, he probably would have packed himself in my duffel bag for this adventure at sea!

Taking a shower at sea is really not much different than taking a shower at the gym or in a college dorm… in the middle of a small earthquake. Actually, it’s really not too bad once you get used to the rock  of the ship.  On the floor where the scientists’ berths (rooms) are, there are also two heads (bathrooms) and two showers.  The ship converts ocean water into water that we can use on the ship for showering, washing hands, etc.  through a process called reverse osmosis.  Sea water is forced through a series of filters so small that not even the salt in the water can fit through.  I was afraid that I might be taking cold showers, but there is a water heater on board, too!   We are supposed to take “Navy showers”, which means you get wet, press a button on the shower head to stop the water while you scrub, then press the button to turn the water back on to rinse.  I’ll admit that I find myself forgetting about this sometimes, but I’m getting much better!

Shower on Hugh R Sharp

Today there was about an hour and a half of “steam” time while we headed to our next dredge location and had nothing official to do.  Some of the people on my watch watched a movie in the galley, but I decided to head to one of the upper decks and enjoy the gorgeous views of ocean in every direction.  I was awarded by a pod of about 15 common dolphins jumping out of the water next to the ship!

I’m starting to get a feel for the process of science at sea and am looking forward to the new adventures that tomorrow might bring!

Question of the Day

Which way do you think is the best way to learn about the sea scallop population and ocean life in general: dredging or HabCam?  Why do you think so?

 You can share your thoughts, questions, and comments in the comments section below.

Staci DeSchryver: An Underwater Petting Zoo, July 28th, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Staci DeSchryver

Onboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
July 26 – August 12, 2011 

Mission: Pollock Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Location:  57.43287 N, 152.28867 W
241.2 (Stationary)
Date: July 28, 2011

Science and Technology Log

Well, we are still in port as of today.  Hopefully we will get rolling in the next couple of days or so, but the time in port has offered a whole new dimension of experiences that we otherwise would not have had the chance to share in had we left on schedule.  So, this is a bit of blessing in disguise.

Yesterday, we went to the Kodiak Fisheries Research Center.  Here, important scientific research is performed on a number of different species.  For example, there are a number of studies currently being done on various crab species found in the Bering Sea.  In addition to this important work, the center has an outreach welcome center with an aquarium and a touch tank – what I termed the “underwater petting zoo.”  In the underwater petting zoo, I had the chance to handle multiple anemones, sea stars, crab, sea cucumbers, and sponges!  It was truly a unique experience.  The “petting zoo” has a continual supply of seawater flowing into and out of the tank, so the animals have a constant supply of fresh seawater where they can comfortably live.

touch tank
These are just some of the critters we got to handle in the underwater petting zoo called the touch tank. The green and red anemone in the upper right corner of the picture felt like a soft pillow! They do have stingers, but they are so small that human hands cannot feel their angry "zap."

What was exciting to me was that the species we were handling were all native species found in and around Alaska’s waters.  The tank was so bright and beautiful that my first assumption was that they were surely tropical animals in the tanks.  Even if I returned from my trip without believing anyone when they told me that they were endemic species to the area, I saw two sea stars in the bay on my way back from a run this morning which confirmed that no one was pulling my leg.

What was even more interesting was that we got a private, behind-the-scenes tour from Dr. Robert Foy, the director of the center.  We got to see multiple studies being conducted in the “back rooms” of the fisheries center, and I even got to “pet” an octopus.  Octopuses are extraordinary little creatures.  One experiment revealed that they were clever enough to unlatch doors separating it from prey.  Another experiment demonstrated that they have quite discerning tastes with respect to their diets – they have been observed “sniffing”  (they don’t really smell, but this is a good comparison) out prey in sealed jars, selecting the prey they wish to consume, unscrewing the cap on the jar, and having a feast.

Wanted: This is a photographer's rendition of an octopus last seen escaping from the AFSC. Be careful with identification, as it is equipped with the evolutionary ability to change both color and texture -- therefore, any confirmed octopus sighting may be the offending octopus mentioned herein. While extremely stealthy, octopus only eats what it wants to -- and it's usually not people.

One octopus in the lab actually accessed a tiny crack in the lid on the tank and “made a break for it”.  He is currently at large, although the scientists in the lab suspect that he pulled a “Nemo” and actually made it back out to the ocean.  If you do see a large, red octopus lurking in the streets of your hometown, do not try to apprehend it.  Call the appropriate authorities immediately.  He is most decidedly “armed” and dangerous.

Another fun little critter I had the chance to hold was a Chianoecetes bairdi, or a Bairdi crab.  It was a bit intimidating when Dr. Foy deftly scooped one out of the tank and informed us that if we got in the way of his claws, that we would “only” be badly cut up.  (Apparently, King Crab have penchant for finger removal).  This particular crab had a missing leg.  What we learned was that if a crab loses a leg unexpectedly (say, to melted butter, for example…) in a situation where it gets pulled off without warning, it is akin to any other animal losing a limb.  However, if the crab can sense that the leg is getting pulled off slowly, it can release the leg on its own, and its body will “cauterize” the wound, which will help the crab to survive.  Dr. Foy mentioned that at times, when crabs are pulled on board a ship under stressful conditions, they will “drop” all of their legs as a defense mechanism.  I imagine that to be quite an interesting sight!

Personal Log

Today we made the drive out to an area called Fossil Beach.  Fossil beach is called fossil beach because of its complete abundance of metamorphic rock which is geologically unsupportive of fossils.  Just kidding.  The beach, aside from being interesting from a scientific perspective, is a rare gem – visited by few, but appreciated by all who are lucky enough to discover it.  Mussels and snails clung ferociously to the sides of partially submerged stones, eagles glided soundlessly high above us, and seals curiously poked their heads out of the water, sneaking glances at those of us on the beach who were lucky enough to spot their quizzically inquisitive stares before retreating under the cover of opaque green waves.  After a stroll along the deserted, gray-black beach, we discovered a “Salmonberry Smorgasbord” along a roadside nearby.  The surf beach was a few miles away from the fossil hunting beach, and we stopped there to look at the herd of wild horses peacefully grazing along the backshore to spend some time alone in a world that made me feel peacefully small.

The beach is a place where two Titans meet. The first gleans his power from being stoic, rugged, and unyielding.  The second gains supremacy from flexibility – throwing her weight against any object upon which she desires to bend to her imposing will.  I watched an unending battle ensue at the boundary of their respective domains, knowing there will be no clear victor in the struggle for sovereignty.  With each incoming attack, parts of the unyielding god would decidedly give way to the relentless inertia of the empress of flexibility – only to return home with the next crashing swell.

surf beach
This is the beach - I assure you, the photo does it no justice, but watching the fog quietly roll in on the wave-cut cliffs was a sure highlight of my trip.

Evidence of the eternal war littered the interface – wave-cut cliffs, sea stacks, and islands were a fierce reminder of her relentless and obsessive power to gradually wear away her enemy.  Conversely, wide sandy beaches were a testament to his ability to remain steadfast in a quest to gain purchase from her murky depths.  It will be years, if ever, before a champion is determined – an infinite stalemate between two equally impressive and imposing giants.  As I walked along the beach, I embraced the loving reliability of Titan Earth, but did so in anticipation of a rendezvous with Titan Sea.  I appreciated them with both apprehension and respect, knowing I would depart from the one I’ve desperately clung to for all of my years in favor of the mysterious and untested depths of the unknown.  Both provide and claim that which is theirs, and I predict some personal difficulty in learning the vehicles by which this is done in the midst of an unfamiliar god.  Thankfully, I am in the confident hands of those who find the ocean as a friend despite her unpredictable and enigmatic nature.

Species Seen
Kodiak Bear
Arctic Tern
Wild Horses
Bairdi Crab
Sea Stars
Sea Cucumbers
Hermit Crab
Bull Kelp



Anne Mortimer: Fishing, July 7, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Anne Mortimer
Onboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
July 4 — 22, 2011 

Mission: Pollock Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Date: July 7, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge
Air temperature: 9.53 C, Foggy
Sea temperature: 8.19 C
Wind direction: 145
Wind Speed: 18.73 knots
Barometric pressure: 1013.22 mbar

Science and Technology Log

Last night, we attempted a bottom trawl for walleye pollock. The way scientists know that fish are present is by using acoustic sampling. The centerboard of the ship is set-up with sound emitting and recording devices. When a sound wave is emitted toward the bottom, it will eventually be returned when it hits a fish or the ocean bottom. This is called echo-sounding and has been used by sport & commercial fisherman and researchers for many decades. The sound waves are sent down in pulses every 1.35 seconds and each returned wave is recorded. Each data point shows up in one pixel of color that is dependent on the density of the object hit. So a tightly packed group of fish will show as a red or red & yellow blob on the screen. When scientists see this, they fish!

This echogram shows scientists where fish can be found.

The scientists use this acoustic technology to identify when to put the net in the water, so they can collect data from the fish that are caught. The researchers that I am working with are specifically looking at pollock, a mid-water fish. The entire catch will be weighed, and then each species will be weighed separately. The pollock will all be individually weighed, measured, sexed, and the otolith removed to determine the age of the fish. Similar to the rings on a tree, the otolith can show the age of a fish, as well as the species.

pollock otolith
A pollock otolith.
Pollock otolith in my hand

These scientists aren’t the only ones that rely on technology, the ships navigation systems is computerized and always monitored by the ship’s crew. For scientific survey’s like these, there are designated routes the ship must follow called transects.

globe chart
This chart shows the transects, or route, that the ship will follow.
This chart shows the route (white line) of the ship once fish were spotted. When scientists find a spot that they want to fish (green fish symbol), they call up to the bridge and the ship returns to that area. As the ship is returning, the deckhands are preparing the net and gear for a trawl.

Personal Log

I think that I must have good sea legs. So far, I haven’t felt sick at all, although it is very challenging to walk straight most times! I’ve enjoyed talking with lots of different folks working on the ship, of all ages and from all different places. Without all of the crew on board, the scientists couldn’t do their research. I’ve been working the night shift and although we’ve completed a bottom trawl and Methot trawl, we haven’t had a lot of fish to sort through. My biggest challenge is staying awake until 3 or 4 am!

Did you know?

That nautical charts show depths in fathoms.  A fathom is a unit of measurement that originated from the distance from tip to tip of a man’s outstretched arms. A fathom is 2 yards, or 6 feet.

Species list for today:

Humpback Whale

Northern Fulmar

Tufted Puffin

Stormy Petrel

Fish biologist Kresimir found this petrel in the fish lab; attracted to the lights it flew inside by accident. The petrel is in the group of birds called the tube-nosed sea birds. They have one or two "tubes" on their beak that helps them excrete the excess salt in their bodies that they accumulate from a life spent at sea.

In the Methot net:

Multiple crab species including tanner crabs

Multiple sea star species, including rose star


Juvenile fish

Brittle stars


Multiple shrimp species including candy striped shrimp

shrimp variety
These are some of the shrimp types that we found in our Methot net tow.

Kristin Joivell, June 30, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kristin Joivell
Onboard NOAA Ship Fairweather
June 15 – July 1, 2009 

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Shumagin Islands, Alaska
Date: June 29-30, 2009

This sea star was brought to the surface in a bottom sample.
This sea star was brought to the surface in a bottom sample.

Weather Data From the Bridge:   
Position: North of Big Koniuji Island
Clouds: mostly clear
Visibility: 10+ miles
Wind: calm Waves: 0 feet
Temperature: 12.0 dry bulb
Temperature: 10.0 wet bulb
Barometer: 1023.2

Science and Technology Log 

Since the ship is operating in waters that there is not much information about, verifying current charted information is important.  Before launches are sent into a new area to collect data, shoreline verification is an operation that must be completed.  First, existing charts and new pictures of the coastline taken from a plane are used to determine a rough estimate of the shoreline.  Then, the shoreline verification team is sent into the area in a small boat.  The boat’s course is determined based on a buffer zone of the mean high water line on shore so that it can avoid any known, previously charted hazards. The boat travels a set path just outside of this buffer zone while logging information about bottom depths and looking for dangers to navigation.

Taking a compass bearing for a previously uncharted danger to navigation.  The rock found is only visible at low tide which makes it all the more hazardous.
Taking a compass bearing for a previously uncharted danger to navigation. The rock found is only visible at low tide which makes it all the more hazardous.

Sometimes hazards are found that are not charted on existing maps.  So, the team must identify these hazards and log their specific locations. An advanced GPS device is used along with a compass to determine the location of the hazard from the boat. The hazards are logged on a computer to record their positions.  Then, that information is used to both warn the other survey boats from the Fairweather working in the area, and to update new editions of the charts. Sometimes hazards that are currently charted are found in a different location. Once in a while, charted hazards are not even there at all!  All of this new information about hazards is also added to the new editions of charts. It’s somewhat terrifying to think that current charts sometimes have mistakes on them that could affect travelers so negatively. Checking what is on the bottom of the ocean is also important information.  To anchor a ship, some materials are more desirable than others. For example, hard rock is not as desirable as mud or sand because the anchor will just drag along hard rock and not catch as well. So, bottom sampling is another important operation that must be completed so that ships can anchor safely and properly.

Retrieving the bottom sampler.  It’s interesting to open it up and see what’s inside.  Depending on material found, ships can determine more desirable and less desirable anchoring locations.
Retrieving the bottom sampler. It’s interesting to open it up and see what’s inside. Depending on material found, ships can determine more desirable and less desirable anchoring locations.

To take a bottom sample, a scoop is deployed from a small boat or the ship.  The scoop has an automatic trigger that closes it when it hits the bottom of the ocean.  Then, you pull the bottom sampling device back up to the boat or ship and open the scoop. Observations about gathered materials are made on the computer.  There are all kinds of designations to specify the nature of the materials gathered.  Many of the samples we gathered were fine sand, but some included medium gravel, soft coral, and broken shells.  A few samples even included sea stars and a sponge!

The most difficult part about bottom sampling is that you have to pull the line up from the ocean floor with the bottom sampler attached.  The bottom sampler is a heavy, metal object so, pulling up all the line and the sampler from over 100 feet below gives you a workout.  Rotating positions on the boat helped especially since there were four of us on board.  That way, everyone’s arms had a chance to rest through three turns until it was your next turn to haul up the line and bottom sampler. I liked bottom sampling a lot because it was a surprise every time the sample was brought back up the boat. Also, it gave me a chance to look at some of the creatures that live in the ocean in Alaska. Seeing the sea stars and the sponge were the highlights of the day.

Personal Log 

This is a small halibut caught by one of the crew. It was quite small, but they can grow to be over 400 pounds.
This is a small halibut caught by one of the crew. It was quite small, but they can grow to be over 400 pounds.

Free time is a priceless commodity on the ship.  Everyone works to complete many tasks each day. Sometimes unexpected events occur that interfere with regular schedules. The Plan of the Day even has a disclaimer on it that states: “Tasks are subject to change at any time.  And they will.” So, when a person has free time and isn’t catching up on sleep, choosing an activity is difficult. Movies are shown each night and the computers are internet capable, but sometimes it’s good to get out on deck or off the ship instead of sitting in a room on board.

One of the things you can do on the ship in your free time is go fishing. You need an Alaska fishing license to do this, so I like to watch the licensed fishermen on board and examine their fish before they are released back into the ocean.  It’s interesting to see how many different kinds of fish are caught on the ship. In just the past few days, people have caught halibut, flounder, and cod.  Someone even recently caught a red octopus eating a baby crab!  Unfortunately, I missed that catch by about 10 minutes.  Comparing the freshwater fish that I know to these saltwater fish is a great free time activity.

Panning for gold on Herendeen Island.  The mica in the water is deceptively similar to gold flake.
Panning for gold on Herendeen Island. The mica in the water is deceptively similar to gold flake.

Another free time activity that is popular is going ashore to hike and explore. We sometimes even have the opportunity to build a fire on the shoreline. There is a lot of driftwood available, but the lack of garbage on the beaches never stops surprising me.  There are none of the common waste materials that you find commonly on the beaches in the Northeastern United States. However, there are some plastic materials like bottles and bags.  One plastic bottle found even had Korean fishermen use plastic fishing floats, but the glass ones are much older and looked for to use for decorations. The crew suggested that I look for them, but I didn’t find any at all.

Panning for gold is also something that can be done while ashore.  I assisted a fellow crew member on the quest for gold, but we were unsuccessful.  The rocks in the area have mica in them, so the streams are full of glittery chips.  These looked to me like gold, and I thought we had struck it rich, but I was wrong.  Standing in the cold stream and searching for gold nuggets is something that I will definitely remember for a long time.

Create Your Own NOAA Experiment at Home 

You can explore the types of water organisms in your area like a NOAA crew member.  If you are planning on fishing, make sure you have the correct fishing license for your area.  Rivers are great places to start because you don’t need a boat to fish on them; you can just fish from the riverbank. Also, if you don’t want to fish, you can examine the macroinvertebrates that live under rocks. In the rivers and streams in Central Pennsylvania where I’m from, you can find mayfly and stonefly nymphs, caddisfly larvae, and water pennies in abundance.  The Pennsylvania Fish Commission has lots of great materials available to help with identification of organisms.  Looking at water from lakes, rivers, streams, and ponds under a microscope is also an interesting experience. You can learn a lot about the health of your area’s watershed by examining the organisms in the water.

Mark McKay, June 22, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Mark McKay
Onboard Research Vessel Knorr
June 10 – July 1, 2005

Mission: Ecosystem Survey
Geographical Area: Bering Sea, Alaska
Date: June 22, 2009

Plankton soup
Plankton soup

Science Log

We spent the day cruising in one of the shallowest regions of the entire expedition. The depth below us is only about 40 meters. We are also getting close to what ice is still present this time of the year.  I checked with the National Snow and Ice Data Center to see what the status of the sea ice in the arctic currently is. So far I haven’t seen any ice but I am keeping a look out for it. Of course we cant see anything, we are cruising through a thick fog right now. I am also doing some of my own research on phytoplankton while up here and the edge of the sea ice plays an important part in how productive the phytoplankton actually is.  They reported that after a slow start to the melt season, the ice extent declined quickly in May. Scientists are monitoring the ice pack for signs of what will come this summer. The thinness of the ice pack makes it likely that the minimum ice extent will again fall below normal, but how far below normal will depend on atmospheric conditions through the summer.

Worms and Sea Stars from sediment cores
Worms and Sea Stars from sediment cores

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the sea ice extent over the month of May 2009 averaged 13.39 million square kilometers (5.17 million square miles). This was 81,000 square kilometers (31,000 square miles) above the record low for that month, which occurred in May 2004, and 21,000 square kilometers (8,100 square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average. So its clear that something unusual is happening up here. At pretty much every station the zooplankton guys set out their nets to see what’s living in the area. Watching them work I can see changes in the zooplankton populations from one location to another. They are finding larval fish, copepods, euphusisds (krill), isopods, amphipods, jellyfish, and the occasional juvenile squid.  Some critters are coming out of the sediment cores currently. Maggie Esch, a graduate student from Western Washington University is studying bioturbidation in the sediment. She is looking at how nutrients move through marine sediments as a response to what is burrowing through the ocean bottom. Her last core had some cool worms and young Sea Stars.

I’m hoping to see more marine animals, especially mammals and birds as we approach the Pribilofs, which are the only island on the eastern Bering Sea that are in the proximity of the shelf break. The current sampling line we are on will bring use right between St. Paul and St. George islands. Owing to their position near the shelf break, these islands are home to large populations of marine mammals, seabirds, and fish. The Pribilofs are a famous destination for birdwatchers. There are a reported 240 different species of birds present in the Pribilofs, and “Birders” come from all over the world to see them in the wild. The islands were also once know as the Fur Seal Islands because of the Fur Seal (Callorhinus ursinus) rookeries located there. Today, the fur seals are only subsistence hunted by the Aleuts, and Inuit who live on the islands.

Fog on the Bering Sea
Fog on the Bering Sea

Elise Olivieri, May 18, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Elise Olivieri
Onboard Research Vessel Hugh R. Sharp 
May 9 – 20, 2009 

Mission: Sea Scallop Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Northwest Atlantic
Date: May 18, 2009

Weather Data from the Bridge 
Air Temperature: 10.44 Degrees Celsius
Barometric Pressure: 1020 mb
Humidity: 62 %

Scallops and sea stars
Scallops and sea stars

Science and Technology Log 

Today was a great day. It was a little cooler than usual but many tasks were accomplished.  I am now able to identify almost every species of fish that comes up in the dredge. I know how to run events and my night watch team works together in harmony.  Everything ran so smoothly today, and I believe it is all due to the fact that we get along so well. I have become good friends with everyone on my watch and some day crew as well.  Relationships are important when you’re living with all different people in close quarters.

I had a chance to talk with Steve Ellis today. He is a port agent for NOAA Fisheries North East Regional Office. He works with management plans and is a Fisheries Reporting Specialist.  Port agents like Steve are stationed where major commercial activity is located.  He works under the fisheries statistics office and monitors commercial fisheries landing in order to supply data for proper fisheries management.  Steve tracks fishery events and maintains reporting requirements that operate in U.S. waters. This helps the government get quota for different species of fish along with their age and growth. This also becomes a part of our Gross National Product.  Steve also helps interpret regulations and provides a link between fishermen and managers. 

Glenn Rountree (left) and I sorting the animals in our buckets
Glenn Rountree (left) and I sorting the animals in our buckets

I also got a chance to sit and talk with Glynn Rountree. He is a volunteer on this NOAA Sea Scallop Survey and he has been volunteering on many cruises since graduate school. So far he has been a volunteer on at least 50 cruises for the Environmental Protection Agency and NOAA. Glynn has a Master’s Degree in Oceanography and is very helpful in answering almost any question you have about various animals and fish. Glynn worked in research administration for 8 years, and now has a job with environmental regulation of home building.  It is important to understand that you do not have to be a scientist to work in a science field.  There are so many significant issues that will affect us directly that it is very important we stay educated on issues like global warming, climate change, and endangered species. We need more college students studying these issues not business administration.

Animals Seen Today 

Windowpane Flounder, Fluke, Sea Cucumber, Gulf Stream Flounder, and Fourspot Flounder. 

Jacob Tanenbaum, October 11, 2008

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jacob Tanenbaum
Onboard NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow
October 5 – 16, 2009

Mission: Survey
Geographic Region: Northeast U.S.
Date: October 11, 2008

Science Log

Greetings from Canada, my son Nicky’s favorite place! We are now in Canadian waters. We have crossed the international boarder. More amazing things keep coming up in our nets. Today we had some interesting sea-stars. Take a look. The larger ones are called Sun-Stars. Do they look like the sun to you? Sea stars are scavengers. They will move around the bottom looking for whatever food is laying around. The legs of the sea star have small tentacles that push food towards the mouth in the center.

Can you find the mouth?
Can you find the mouth?

Did you know that squid can change color? Often male squid change color to attract a mate or to scare off other males who are competing with them. If there are two males near one female, they able to turn one color on the side facing the female, and then turn another color on the other side facing the male.


We had more dolphins circling the ship last night. We think our lights may be attracting certain fish or squid, then the dolphins come to eat that. They are not with us during the day at all. One of the benefits, I guess, of being on the night watch. I cannot shoot still photos due to the low light, but have wonderful video. The sounds that you hear on the video were recorded with the ship’s hydrophone. This is a special microphone that can record sounds underwater. The sounds were recorded as the dolphins swam around the ship. You can hear the sound of them swimming by as well as the sound of their sonar as they locate fish to eat. Click here to watch and listen. Thanks to survey technician Pete Gamache for recording this for us. Click here to see the video. Don’t miss it!

Floating Sargassum mat
Floating Sargassum mat
Close up Sargassum
Close up Sargassum

We drove past some seaweed called sargasum weed. It normally grows in an area towards the middle of the Atlantic called the Sargasso Sea. We are well west of the Sargasso, but this seems to have drifted our way. Sargasum Weed grows on the surface of the water. These huge mats of seaweed support an entire ecosystem of sea creatures. Many come to seek shelter in the weeds. Many more come to feed on smaller creatures hiding there.

Snuggy and Zee paid a visit to the fantail of the ship.
Snuggy and Zee paid a visit to the fantail of the ship.

The fantail is an area by the stern of the vessel where the nets are deployed. The photos show the area where the work gets done. Our ship works all night long, of course, and trawls are done at night as well as during the day. Take a look at this video which explains how trawls are done.

NOAA Ship Albatross
NOAA Ship Albatross

Our ship is shadowing another NOAA ship, the Albatross. Why? The Albatross is an old ship and will be replaced by the Bigelow in the years to come. At this point, the ships are trawling in exactly the same place to see if they get similar results in their surveys. Making sure the vessels measure the same thing the same way is called calibration. Right now we are doing calibration with the Albatross.


IMG_6425-724011Now some answers to your questions:

RM – No we did not see Nantucket yet. We were too far out to sea. We may see it on the way back. Thanks for writing.

T – I love Block Island too. Thanks for the warning about rough seas. I am glad you and your mom are both enjoying the blog as much as I enjoy writing it for you. I’m used to the 12 AM shift now. I that I finally got 8 hours of sleep.

AR – There were TONS of skates in the water.

Hello to Mrs Eubank’s Class. Its great to hear from you. Great questions. Now for answers:

— Amanda, I think fish can get smaller pieces of plastic confused with tiny plankton, but our buoy is too large for that. I don’t think it will hurt fish. I think they will stay away from it.

–Tiffany, this is a tough question and a very good question. I guess over time, our buoy will stop working and will become floating trash. The truth is all science effects the environment you study. The trick is to do more good with your work than harm. Our buoy will help us understand our environment better so that all of us will do less harm in the future. Our ship also burns fuel as we study the ocean. That pollutes a little, but hopefully through our work, we do more good than harm to what we study.

Weston, It felt like the drifter weighs about 35 pounds or so.

Bryce, we use a large net to scoop along the bottom. The opening is about 4 meters wide.

Luke, we have not, nor do I expect to find new species. Our purpose is to learn more about the species that we already know about.

Bryce, we were about 140 miles from the nearest land the last time I looked.

RJ, some scientists made our drifter.

Weston, there are about 1000 drifters right now in the open sea.

I enjoyed your questions. Thanks for writing.

Mr. Moretti’s class, I’m not sure what killed the whale, but remember, all things the live also die. We cannot assume that something human beings did killed that whale. With all the pollution we create, we cannot assume, however, that we did not hurt it. We should stop polluting just to be sure we do not hurt other living things.

Many of you have are working hard to figure out our math question from the other day. Here is how it works. If we are going 8 knots for 24 hours, we multiply 8 times 24 and get 192 knots in a day. If we want to convert that to miles, we multiply again by 1.15 because each knot is 1.15 miles. We get 220.8 Congratulations to all who got this correct. It was a tough question.

Several of you have asked how long I would be on the ship. I will be here until the end of next week. I leave the ship on Friday October 17th.

LP – I enjoy the show Deadliest Catch very much. I think it is cool that scientists sometimes do that same kind of exciting work.

SD, there is no way for me to videotape under that water, but tomorrow I will show you how our sonars (we call them echosounders) work. That is one way to see under the water.

DT from SOMS dont’ worry, there is no light pollution out here. I am on the back deck of a working ship, so right where I am there are lights. I need them to do my job. I just have to go to the upper decks to get away from it or ask the bridge to shut them down for a bit.

Tara Fogleman, June 4, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Tara Fogleman
Onboard NOAA Ship John N. Cobb
June 1 – 14, 2007

Mission: Alaskan Harbor Seal Pupping Phenology and Site Monitoring
Geographical Area: Southeast Alaska
Date: June 4, 2007

We’ve been at sea now for nearly four days, and Dave Withrow, the Chief Scientist, and I have had a chance to visit several haulout sites to count harbor seals.  Harbor seals tend to haul out on rocky islands or reefs that provide protection from predators or strong winds.  Generally, the harbor seals “haul out”, or leave the water, at low tide, so all of our work is done around this time.  We travel to these rocky sites via a small boat that is launched from the JOHN N. COBB, and because the sound of the boat can frighten the seals, we usually jump out at a nearby island, hike to a hidden viewpoint, and use binoculars to count them.  When there is no viewpoint available, Dave must count the seals from the boat; however, this isn’t ideal, since using binoculars from a moving, bumpy boat can be quite difficult.

A female harbor seal and her pup haul out on a rocky reef covered in kelp during low tide.  This photo was captured by Dave Withrow (Chief Scientist) during a study of harbor seals and pupping phenology in southeastern Alaska.
A female harbor seal and her pup haul out on a rocky reef covered in kelp during low tide. Photo by Chief Scientist Dave Withrow.

Don’t Forget the Equipment!

There are several pieces of equipment that are important for the study.  Dave uses a GPS (Global Positioning System) unit to locate sites that he has visited previously—using this tool, he can identify the precise location of a seal haulout that he has visited in the past, or mark a new location for future reference.  He also uses special gyrostabilized binoculars which maintain a stable image, even when his hands are unsteady or he is counting seals from a moving location, such as a boat.  All of his data are recorded in a waterproof notebook. Dave brings camera equipment so that he can take photographs of the seals, which can be used later to recheck counts.  He also carries a radio so that he can communicate with the driver of the small boat (for this cruise, a coxswain named Chris) and the Commanding Officer of the JOHN N. COBB.  Safety equipment is also important, particularly when working in the unpredictable weather of southeastern Alaska. On each boat trip, Dave brings a satellite phone and a GPS-linked emergency transmitter called a PEPIRB (Personal Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacon) that can alert the US Coast Guard if Dave (or anyone else on the small skiff) is experiencing trouble and needs to be rescued. Other safety devices that are commonly used on small boats during field studies include a basic first aid kit, mini signal flares, a bright orange rescue streamer, fire-starting material, extra food and water supplies, and a pocketknife/hand tool such as a Leatherman.

Visiting the Haulout Sites

Tara Fogleman studied harbor seals in southeastern Alaska
Tara Fogleman studied harbor seals in southeastern Alaska

Harbor seals haul out for several reasons, including temperature regulation and the conservation of energy. However, in June, the primary reason for hauling out is due to the pupping season, during which females give birth to their young on land and care for them.  Dave will compare the number of seals hauling out during the pupping season to the number of seals that haul out during the molting season in August, when the seals shed their fur. We have visited several haulout sites during the past few days, and I have become much more adept at counting the seals and recognizing their shape and color from a distance.  Harbor seals vary in color, including shades of white, gray, and brown-black.  Often, the lighter-colored seals are older and larger individuals, while the pups are a darker color.  At first glance, the seals appear defenseless, like large sausages washed up on to the rocks during a high tide. Their movements are awkward on land—they make their way across the jagged rocks by back-and-forth rocking of their bodies, and once situated, they rest in closely-packed groups, with the pups alongside their mothers.  However, upon seeing the silhouette of a person or hearing an approaching boat, the seals smoothly enter the water and swim to safety, suddenly becoming graceful and quick.

Tide pools that form among the depressions in the rocky reefs provide a habitat for a variety of invertebrates, including sea anemones, sea stars, and bryozoans.  Photo courtesy of Dave Withrow.
Tide pools that form among the depressions in the rocky reefs provide a habitat for a variety of invertebrates, including sea anemones, sea stars, and bryozoans.

As mentioned earlier, harbor seals tend to haul out on rocky reefs that fringe small islands or the coastline. These rocky sites are only exposed at low tide, and become completely submerged by water during high tides.  Because we visit the reefs at low tide, the rocks are partially covered in layers of slimy, light-green kelp and green algae that reek of a strong, ammonia-like odor and make for a slippery climbing surface.  Small tide pools in the crevices between the rocks provide a close-up look at purple and orange sea stars, green sea anemones, small fish, and other tide pool organisms.

Humpback Up Ahead!

I finally had a chance to see my first humpback whale yesterday morning.  From a distance, it was easy to spot the spray from the whale as it exhaled out of its blowhole.  As the whale approached our boat and we turned the engine off, we could hear the exhale as well, and I was able to grasp the immense size of this marine mammal.  The humpback whale can reach lengths of up to 45 feet and weigh up to 45 tons, and it is clearly recognizable by the small “hump-like” dorsal ridge that surfaces from time to time. To avoid injuries to the whale, Chris (our coxswain) kept the outboard motor running so that the whale would be able to identify our exact location.  Dave attempted to take photos of the underside of the humpback whale’s flukes, or tail fin, so that the whale could be identified. Each whale has an individually unique pattern on its flukes, which acts like a “fingerprint” that can be matched for identification.  Using these photos, researchers can track individual whale movements within and between seasons.  The master north Pacific humpback database is maintained by NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle where Dave works. We snapped a few photos as it maneuvered through the shallow waters and then headed back to the JOHN N. COBB for a late lunch.  Scientists can use photographs of a humpback whale’s tail flukes to identify the organism because the pattern on each whale’s tail fin is unique.

Tara Fogleman, a NOAA Teacher-at-Sea participant, took this photograph of a humpback whale as it rose to the surface for another breath.
Tara Fogleman, a NOAA Teacher-at-Sea participant, took this photograph of a humpback whale as it rose to the surface for another breath.

We are slowly making our way toward Wrangell, a small coastal town located south of Juneau. After making a pit stop there tomorrow night to purchase fuel and a fuel filter, we will proceed towards the tidewater glaciers at Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm and continue our study of haulout sites.

Jacob Tanenbaum, June 19, 2006

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jacob Tanenbaum
Onboard NOAA Ship Miller Freeman
June 1 – 30, 2006

Mission: Bering Sea Fisheries Research
Geographic Region: Bering Sea
Date: June 19, 2006

Mountains in the clouds
Mountains in the clouds

Weather Data from the Bridge

Visibility: Less than 1 mile
Wind Speed: 14 miles per hour
Sea Wave Height: 2 feet
Water Temperature: 44.06 degrees
Air Temperature: 41.36 degrees
Pressure: 1018 Millibars

Personal Log

NOTE: We will arrive in the port of Dutch Harbor, Alaska on June 20. As the project draws to a close, I would like to evaluate how effective it was. There is a link to an electronic survey. I would like to ask students, teachers, parents, and other visitors to the site to take a few moments to let me know what you think of this idea. The survey is all electronic and only takes a minute or two to complete. Thank you in advance for your time. Click here to access the survey. I should be able to send one more blog tomorrow from Dutch Harbor. Check back and I will let you know what being on land again feels like. Dutch Harbor should be an interesting place.

Large sea stars from the bottom trawl
Large sea stars from the bottom trawl

We passed the Pribilof Islands. Home to one of the largest worlds largest gatherings of marine mammals in the summer time. I got up to see the islands at midnight and again when we passed a second one at 4:00 AM. We were covered in fog both times, so we will have to come back another day. At midnight, the sun had not yet set. Our sun set last night at about 12:15 and it took a long time to grow dark after that. The sky began to grow light at about 5:00 and it came up a little after 6. A short night.

Science Log

Last night we had another bottom trawl. This one had some of the largest sea stars I have ever seen. One was close to a foot long.  In addition, there is a coral here called sea raspberry. It is common along the Bering Sea Shelf. I thought coral was only in tropical seas, but here it is in the Bering Sea. Since it is our last day at sea, I spoke to our Chief Scientist Dr. Paul Walline from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle Washington about what we have learned so far.

Coral called a sea raspberry
Coral called a sea raspberry

What does the data tell you so far? 

What do you expect to see in the next legs?

What will happen to the data at the end of the cruise? 

Finally, we were testing a platform today that can open nets at different depths. We lowered the platform to about 390 feet before a technical problem forced us to raise it back up to the surface. As an experiment of my own, I tied a bag of Styrofoam cups to the platform to see what the pressure at that depth would do to them. Want to see more? Click here for a video

Question of the Day:

What was your favorite part about participating in this project. Please write and let me know.