Kimberly Scantlebury: Beneath the Waves, May 4, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Kimberly Scantlebury

Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces

May 1-May 12, 2017

Mission: SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date:  May 4, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time: 10:25

Latitude: 2823.2302 N, Longitude: 9314.2797 W

Wind Speed: 12 knots, Barometric Pressure: 1009 hPa

Air Temperature: 19.3 C, Water Temperature: 24.13  C

Salinity: 35.79  PSU, Conditions: Cloudy, 6-8 foot waves

Science and Technology Log

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The cameras are sent down 15-150 meters. It takes several crew, plus Joey “driving” inside the dry lab, to make each launch happen.

Long line fishing is one way to gather fish population data. Another is remote sensing with camera arrays. The benefit of this is it is less invasive. The downside is it is more expensive and you can not collect fish samples. The goal has been to do ten-twelve camera array deployments a day.

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Hi, OSCAR.

There are two camera arrays set up: Orthogonal Stereo Camera Array (OSCAR) and an array containing a 360 degree spherical view camera pod and a single stereo camera (Frank). OSCAR runs technology that has been used since 2008. There have been many incarnations of camera technology used for the SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey since 1991. The OSCAR setup uses four stereo cameras that capture single video and stereo pair still images. Frank uses six cameras that can be stitched together to give a full 360 viewing area. This work is used to determine trends in abundance of species, although there are a few years of holes in the data as the transition from catch to camera took place. OSCAR setup and the Frank setup (affectionately called that due to its pieced together parts like Frankenstein’s Monster) both run to provide comparisons between the different technology. One of the other devices on Frank is an Abyss by GoPro.

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NOAA scientist, Kevin works on making sure the Abyss is reading to attach to Frank.

GoPros’ Abyss device may be a cheaper, off the rack option, but they do not do as well in low light conditions. Choosing gear is always a balance between cost and wants. For that you need to spend more for custom scientific equipment. 

Researchers are always working to stay current to gather the best data. This requires frequent upgrades to hardware and software. It also means modern scientific researchers must possess the skills and fortitude to adapt to ever changing technology. The ability to continually learn, troubleshoot, and engineer on the fly when something breaks are skills to learn. This is something all current students can take to heart.   

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The team troubleshooting technology.

Together, camera arrays, vertical long lines, and fish trap methods give a more accurate view of beneath the waves.

Quote of the day regarding launching the camera arrays: “You gotta remember, I’m gonna make that lady fly.”-James

Personal Log

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There are three different sized hooks used that rotate through the three Bandit reels.

Another important science lesson is that zero is a number. There have been camera problems to work through and we have not been catching fish. Sometimes that zero is from equipment that stopped running. Those zeros are errors that can be removed from the data set.

With fishing, we record if the bait is still attached or not, even if we do not catch any. It is always fun to put thirty hooks down and not know what is going to appear until we reel them up. It is also disappointing not to catch anything. Data is data. It is important for determining species abundance.

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Baiting the hooks.

I have enjoyed learning how to record on the data sheets, bait the hooks, de-bait the hooks (so there is always fresh bait), and a lot of little parts that are a part of the overall experience.

When we are working, the ship goes to a predetermined location and stops. The CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) Water Column Profiler is dropped in first (to be featured in a future post) then raised after data collection is done. Next either OSCAR or Frank goes down. Every few stops we also do the vertical long line fishing. The ship then goes on to the next stop, which takes about twenty minutes. That time is spent breaking down fish (when they are caught) and troubleshooting equipment.

Did You Know?

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When on deck, hard hats and PDF are required when the cranes are running.

Kimberly Scantlebury: Sharks, Snappers, and Sealegs, May 2, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Kimberly Scantlebury

Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces

May 1-May 12, 2017

Mission: SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey

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My beautiful home for two weeks.

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: May 2, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time: 11:25

Latitude: 2808.4978 N, Longitude: 09329.9347 W

Wind Speed: 18.69 knots, Barometric Pressure: 1015.6 hPa

Air Temperature: 27.4 C, Water Temperature: 24.4 C

Salinity: 35.9301 PSU,  Conditions: sunny, no clouds, small waves

Science and Technology Log

There are several ways data is collected for the SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey in order to have a more complete understanding of the reef system. One of them is fishing with vertical long lines with Bandit reels. We are fishing for snapper species (Lutjanus sp.), grouper species (Serranidae sp.), and certain species of amberjack (Seriola sp.). There are three reels mounted on the vessel’s starboard side. The fishing works by dropping a weighted line with ten mackerel-baited hooks per reel, which then ends with an orange float. The boat is kept as still as possible and we wait a designated period of time before reeling up the lines.

I fished with deckhand James and Texas A&M graduate student, Jillian. The other lines were fished by NOAA scientists Joey, Kevin, John, and other deckhands. Our first try we caught two large spinner (Carcharhinus brevipinna) sharks that escaped back to sea. The other lines caught smaller sharks and a couple red snappers. We ended up catching and returning six sharks.

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Even though we were not aiming to catch sharks, they are part of the ecosystem and the data is collected. The data is written down on paper first and then transferred to computer databases. Some of the sharks required wrangling and less data was collected before releasing them live to prevent harm to shark and people.

The red snappers were weighed, measured in different ways, sexed, the sexual development was determined, and then retained, meaning we kept the fish. The otoliths (ear bones) and gonads (reproductive parts) were also weighed, labeled with an unique bar code, and stored for later analysis down at the Panama City Lab.

Determining variability of fish ages is possible due to this important work. Otoliths work similar to aging tree rings. Under a microscope you can clearly read each year. By comparing fish size to gonads, it has been determined a thirty-year-old red snapper can produce more eggs than 30 one year old red snappers. It is easy to see the research conducted on NOAA Ship Pisces is vital to managing and protecting our nation’s seafood supply.

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Personal Log

The movement aboard a ship this size is different than smaller vessels I’ve been on such as a ferry, lobster boat, and other research vessels. Right now we are expecting to not work Thursday due to high seas and wind. The NOAA Ship Pisces’s 208 feet sways in every direction-up, down, all around. The adjustment period for acclimating to this unpredictable movement is referred to as, “getting your sealegs.” This is also an apt metaphor for my time adapting to life on board.

Other than research protocols, Teachers at Sea need to learn what to do in case of emergencies. The science staff, including myself, received a safety briefing before leaving port.  Each person is assigned a muster station where they are to report if there is a Fire or Man Overboard. A separate location is assigned for Abandon Ship. Each emergency has a designated series of short or long horn blasts from the ship so it is clear to all what is happening.

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It’s Gumby suit time!

Later, the whole ship drilled Abandon Ship. As fast as possible, we each carried our personal flotation device (PFD) and survival suit (referred to as a Gumby suit) to our life raft station. I then practiced how to get the suit on in less than a minute.

Did You Know?

As a New Englander, I talk faster than most people on NOAA Ship Pisces, whose home port is Pascagoula, Mississippi.

There are a lot of oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. We have not seen any other vessels out here, but can often see a half dozen rigs at a time. In fact, NOAA Ship Pisces was recognized for, “outstanding and successful emergency mobilization by providing acoustic monitoring survey operations under hazardous and arduous navigation conditions in support of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill recovery efforts.” 

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Oil rigs in sight as equipment is brought back aboard.

David Walker: Crossing the Mississippi River Delta (Days 10-12), July 5, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
David Walker
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 24 – July 9, 2015

Mission: SEAMAP Bottomfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 5, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Weather Log 7/5/15

NOAA Ship Oregon II Weather Log 7/5/15

This has been some of the smoothest water I’ve seen yet on the ocean.  At times, you can’t even see wave motion on the surface of the ocean, and it looks more like a lake.  On July 5, 2015, waves were estimated to be 1 ft. in height, at most (see above weather log from the bridge).  Sky condition on July 5 began as scattered (SCT, 3-4 oktas), moved to broken (BKN, 5-7 oktas) and overcast (OVC, 8 oktas) by the afternoon and evening, and then returned to FEW (1-2 oktas) by 11 PM.  There was rain observed in the vicinity (VC/RA) at 4 PM, and some lightning (LTG) was observed in the late evening.

Science and Technology Log

The survey is still progressing smoothly.  We have just crossed the Mississippi River delta, and I have observed a much greater human presence in the water — many ships, mostly commercial shrimping vessels, and even more oil rigs than usual.

Of particular interest to me, we have caught many new species over the past couple of days.  One notable new catch on Day 11 was a giant hermit crab (Petrochirus diogenes), the largest species in the Gulf of Mexico.  In most cases, hermit crabs need to be removed from their shells in order to be successfully identified.  This process was much more difficult than I had imagined, and I ended up having to use a hammer to crack the shell.  The crab contained within was indeed large – it amazed me that such a large species could occupy such a moderately-sized shell.  After analyzing the crab in the laboratory, we quickly returned it to the ocean, in the hope that it would find another shell in which to occupy and survive.

Another interesting catch on Day 11 was a seabiscuit (Brissopsis alta).  This organism was caught at a station overlying a sandy/muddy bottom, this type of seafloor environment providing a habitat for these unique creatures.  We were able to prep the seabiscuit with bleach in the same manner in which we prepped the sand dollars a couple of days ago.  The product was a purely white – a very delicate, yet quite beautiful specimen for my classroom.  Much thanks to fisheries biologist Kevin Rademacher for his help in preparing these organisms.

On Days 11 and 12, we caught some particularly large individuals, which made for great photo opportunities.  On Day 11, we caught the largest roundel skate (Raja texana) that we’ve seen yet, and on Day 12, we netted a large gulf smoothhound (Mustelus sinusmexicanus), a shark species that interestingly has no teeth.  The rest of the night shift was encouraging me to take a photo with my hand down the shark’s mouth, but I settled for the typical catch photo.  This shark was swiftly returned to the water (head first) after laboratory analysis was conducted, and it survived the catch.

As we have to open up fish in order to sex them, it is a natural investigative temptation to look at the other anatomy inside the fish.  A usual focal point is the stomach, as many times, fish stomachs are very disproportionately bloated.  Many times, enlargement of organisms such as the air bladder, stomach, and eyes of caught fish is due to barotrauma.  When a fish is quickly taken from deep waters to the surface, the pressure rapidly decreases, causing internal gases to expand.  In certain cases, we have discovered very recently eaten fish inside organisms’ stomachs.  One particularly interesting example was the stomach of a threadtail conger (Uroconger syringinus), in which we found a yellow conger (Rhynchoconger flavus) of equal size!

Uroconger Ate Rhyncoconger

We found the yellow conger on the right inside the stomach of the threadtail conger on the left! Photo credit to Kevin Rademacher.

I have started to realize the very subtle differences between some species.  One great example of such subtle variance is found in two similar sole species – the fringed sole (Gymnachirus texae) and the naked sole (Gymnachirus melas).  The naked sole contains a faint secondary stripe in between each of the bold stripes on its back; the fringed sole does not have this stripe.  During our initial sorting of species, I unwittingly threw both of these species into the same basket.  Fortunately, fisheries biologist Kevin Rademacher noticed what I was doing and identified the distinguishing phenotypic difference.  I have adjusted the brightness, contrast, and shadowing of the below photos to make the difference in striping more apparent.

Flatfish, such as the soles above, have a very interesting developmental pattern from juvenile to adult.  Fisheries biologists Kevin Rademacher and Alonzo Hamilton were able to nicely summarize it for me.  As juveniles, they start off with eyes on both sides of their heads and swim in the same manner as normal fish.  However, once they get large enough to swim out of the current, they “settle out” onto the seafloor.  At this time, a very interesting series of morphological changes takes place.  Notably, the eyes of the fish migrate such that they are both on one side of the fish’s body.  This morphological change has clearly been evolutionary favored over generations, as it allows the fish to see with both of its eyes while slithering along the seafloor.  The side of the fish on which the eyes end up depends on the particular species of fish.  Flatfish are accordingly categorically defined as “right-eyed” or “left-eyed,” based on the side of the fish containing the eyes.  The procedure is fairly simple to define a flatfish a right-eyed or left-eyed.

  1. Look down at the side of the fish containing both of the eyes.
  2. Orient the fish such that the eye that migrated from the opposite side is on top.
  3. If the head faces left, the flatfish is defined as left-eyed.
  4. Otherwise, it is defined as right-eyed.

On many occasions, we have been able to keep some of our catch to later eat.  I have had fresh white shrimp, brown shrimp, red snapper, lane snapper, vermillion snapper, hogfish, and even paper scallops.  I have obtained lots of practice heading shrimp and fileting fish, as well as shucking scallops.  It has been very interesting to visualize the entire process, from catch to table.  It is true what they say, incredibly fresh seafood tastes much better.  Most of the credit here goes to Chief Steward (CS) Mike Sapien and Second Cook (2C) Lydell Reed, the chefs on the ship.

Also after my shift, I was able to visit the ship’s bridge for the first time during the day.  The environment at night is quite different on the bridge, as the NOAA Corps Officers driving the ship need to keep their eyes adjusted to the dark.  Accordingly, the only lights used in the bridge at night are red, reminding me of the lights used by the scientists I observed on a recent night trip to the UT McDonald Observatory.  My trip to the bridge during the day allowed me to observe the operation of the ship and many instruments clearly for the first time.  It was honestly quite intimidating — so many instruments, controls, and dials, and I had no clue what any of them did.  I was very scared to touch anything – the only instrument with which I braved to interact was a very nice pair of binoculars.  The ship is always driven by NOAA Corps Commissioned Officers.  During the time of my observation, Ensign (ENS) Laura Dwyer, a Junior Officer, and Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTRG) Larry Thomas, the ship’s Operations Officer, were on the bridge.  The Captain (Commanding Officer) of the ship, Master David Nelson, entered and exited periodically.  ENS Dwyer was very kind to point out to me different instruments on the bridge and discuss the operating of the ship.  Interestingly, the NOAA Ship Oregon II operates on a system similar to that of a car with a manual transmission – while the ship has two engines instead of one, each engine has a clutch.  There is also a controllable pitch system that allows the operator of the ship to change the angle of the propeller.  There are two RADAR devices, as well multiple GPS navigational systems, on which the stations of the survey are plotted.  The are multiples of each of these important ship systems as a safety measure.  Despite the GPS systems, the ship still has a chart table on the bridge, and even a chart room, where routes are plotted out in more detail.  The helm, which controls the rudder, is still a large, prominent wheel, just as it was in the pirate stories I read as a child.  ENS Dwyer told me, however, that helms are much more abbreviated in appearance in more modern ships.  She indicated that many members of the NOAA Corps appreciate the “vintage” feel of the bridge of the NOAA Ship Oregon II — the ship will be 50 years old in 2017!

We have more or less finished the intended stations for Leg 2 of this survey, but as we still have time left before we are due back in port, we have received orders to proceed through to Leg 3 stations.  These stations are entirely across the Gulf of Mexico, along the western coast of Florida.  The traveling time there is over 14 hours by boat, and we will be traveling more or less as the crow flies.  I am really looking forward to these new stations, as I have heard the biodiversity is vastly different.

Survey Locations

Sections of the 2015 SEAMAP Bottomfish Survey

Personal Log

Ever since my shift on Day 11, in which I felt particularly fatigued and engorged, I have been completing cardio workouts daily.  There is quite a bit of workout equipment stored in various places throughout the ship, and I have finally found an enjoyable cardio workout.  I am using a rowing machine that I found on the top deck of the ship, and I set it up to face the direction of the ship’s movement.  In this way, when I row, I feel as though I am actually pushing the boat through the water.  The wave motion and periodic jostling of the ship makes the rowing machine feel even more like the real thing, and I am forced to recall my days rowing at the crack of dawn on Lake Dunmore near Middlebury, Vermont while in college.

Workout Setup

My workout setup on the top deck of the ship

The Fourth of July on the boat was free of any special pomp and circumstance.  It was, more than anything, just another work day.  Fortunately, all of the employees on the boat get paid overtime for working this day, as well as weekend days.  I definitely missed the Zilker fireworks celebration in Austin (TX), but it was meaningful to be on a boat with members of the NOAA Corps, a Commissioned Service of the United States, on this important day for America.

I have made significant progress in Tender is the Night and am almost finished.  I have also spent free time watching the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the Wimbledon Championships on the satellite television upstairs.

Regarding my sleep, I have finally stopped taking Dramamine®.  Lo and behold, I have had no more nightmares, this lending further support to my theory that Dramamine® was the cause.

The days are still very exciting, and I have yet to encounter a day without a great deal of fresh learning.  On to Florida!

Did You Know?

The Navy Motion Picture Service provides encrypted DVDs for use on deployed ships.  In the upstairs lounge, there are well over 700 DVDs, from classics to quite new releases, organized for anyone to watch in their free time.

DVD Binder

On of the many DVD binders on the ship, courtesy of the Navy Motion Picture Service

Notable Species Seen

David Walker: Equilibrium at Sea (Days 6-9), July 3, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
David Walker
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 24 – July 9, 2015

Mission: SEAMAP Bottomfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 3, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Weather Log 7/2/15

NOAA Ship Oregon II Weather Log 7/2/15

Weather has fortunately continued to be calm.  The only main deviation from clear skies has been haziness (symbolized “HZ” on the above weather log from 7/2/15).  On 7/2/15, sky condition varied from FEW (3-4 octas) in the very early morning, to SCT (3-4 octas) and BKN (5-7 octas) at midday and afternoon, to SCT (3-4 octas) in the evening and night.  Swell waves have varied throughout the past couple of days, from less that 1 meter to around 3 meters in height.

Science and Technology Log

The past few days honestly blend completely together in my mind.  I feel as though I have reached an equilibrium of sorts on the boat.  The night shift has proceeded normally – station to station, trawl to trawl, CTD data collection at each station, plankton collected periodically throughout the shift.  Certain trawl catches have been exceptionally muddy, which poses a further task, as the organisms must first be separated from all of the mud and cleaned, before they can be identified.

In addition, on Day 6, the trawl net was damaged on a couple of occasions.  I’ve realized that a trawl rig is quite the complicated setup.  The trawling we are doing is formally called “otter trawling”.  Two boards are attached at the top of the rig to aid in spreading out the net underwater.  To allow the net to open underwater, one of the two lead lines of the net contains floats to elevate it in the water column.  A “tickler chain” precedes the lead lines to stir fish from the sea floor and into the net.  The fish collected by the net are funneled into the terminating portion of the net, called the “cod end”.  FMES Warren Brown is an expert when it comes to this entire rig, and he is in charge of fixing problems when they arise.  On Day 6, Warren had to fix breaks in the net twice.  With help from Lead Fisherman Chris Nichols and Skilled Fisherman Chuck Godwin, new brummel hooks were attached to the head rope for one of the door lifting lines, and a new tickler chain was installed.

I also learned a lot more of the specifics involved in the workup of the plankton catch.  The dual bongo contains two collection nets in parallel.  Plankton is removed from the cod ends of these nets, but not combined.  The plankton from the left bongo is transferred to a mixture of formaldehyde (10% v/v) and sea water for preservation.  The plankton from the right bongo is transferred to 95% ethanol.  The reason for this is that different solvent mixtures are needed to best preserve different parts of the plankton in the sample.  The formaldehyde solution is best for fixing tissue, yet it tends to dissolve hard parts (for example, otoliths, discussed below).  The ethanol solution is better for preserving hard parts (bones, cartilage, etc.).  This explains the need for two bongos.  Workup of collected plankton from the Neuston net is similar, except many non-plankton species are often collected, which have to be removed from the sample.  Highlight non-plankton species from the past couple days have been sailfin flyingfish (Parexocoetus brachypterus) and a juvenile billfish (Istiophoridae).  Neuston-collected plankton is transferred to 95% ethanol.  This solvent is the only one needed here, as only DNA analysis and stock assessment are conducted on Neuston-collected plankton.  All plankton is shipped to Poland, where a lab working in collaboration with NOAA will analyze it.  Samples are broken down according to a priority species list sent by NOAA.

The CTD survey is coming along nicely.  Progress through July 1 is shown on the below bottom dissolved oxygen contour.  Similar trends to those commented on in my last blog post continue to be observed, as a further area of hypoxia has been exposed near the coastline.  You can see that our survey is progressing east toward Mississippi (we will finish this leg in Pascagoula, MI, though the survey will continue on to the Florida coast during Leg 3).

A couple of other distinct memories stand out in my mind from the past couple of days:

  • Sexing “ripe” fish. Sometimes, certain species of fish are so fertile over the summer that certain individuals are deemed “ripe”.  Instead of cutting into these fish, they can be more easily sexed by applying pressure toward that anus and looking for the expression of semen or eggs.  One of the species for which this technique is most often applied this time of year is the Atlantic cutlassfish (Trichiurus lepturus).  One must be careful, however, for as I found out, the gametes sometimes emit from the anus with much force, shooting across the room.  It only takes wiping fish semen off of your face once to remember this forever.
  • Flying fish. I saw my first flyingfish (Exocoetidae) during a plankton collection with the neuston net.  The net would scatter the fish, and they would fly for cover, sometimes 10-15 meters in distance.  Amazing.
  • Preparing sand dollars. Interestingly, the sand dollars we caught (Clypeaster ravenelii) looked brown/green when they came out of the ocean.  Sand dollars are naturally brownish, and in the ocean, they are most often covered in algae.  We kept a couple of these organisms to prepare.  To prepare, we first placed the sand dollars in a dilute bleach solution for awhile.  We then removed them and shook out the sand and internal organs.  We then placed them back in the bleach for a little longer, until they looked white, with no blemishes.  The contrast between the sand dollar, as removed from the ocean, and this pure white is quite remarkable.
  • Otoliths.  Fisheries biologist Kevin Rademacher showed me a nifty way to remove the otoliths from fish.  Otoliths, “commonly known as ‘earstones,’ are hard calcium carbonate structures located behind the brain of bony fishes,” which “aid fish in balance and hearing” (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission).  When viewed under microscope and refracted light, otoliths show a pattern of dark translucent zones (representing period of quick growth) and white opaque zone (representing periods of slower growth).  By counting the white opaque zones (called “annuli”), fisheries biologists can estimate the age of the fish.  Granted, this process differs for different fish, as different fish species have different otolith size.  Accordingly, a species standard is always prepared (usually a fish raised from spawn, from which the otoliths are taken at a known age) to estimate the growth time associated with one whole annulus for the particular species.  Sample otoliths are compared to the standard to estimate age.  Otolith analysis also allows scientists to estimate “growth rates,…age at maturity, and trends of future generations” (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission).  On this survey, we only take otoliths from fish that are wanted for further laboratory analysis, but are too large to store in the freezer.  On some surveys, however, otoliths are removed from all fish caught.  I got to remove the otoliths from a large red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus).  The first step is to make an incision to separate the tongue and throat from the lower jaw.  The hand is then inserted into the hole created, and using a fair bit of force, the throat and gills are ripped away from the head to expose the vertebrae.  The gills are then cut from the base of the vertebrae, to expose the bony bulb containing the sagittal otoliths.  Diagonal cutters are then used to crack open the boney bulb containing the sagittal otoliths, and the otoliths are removed using forceps.

Personal Log

I am still feeling great on the boat.  The work is quite tiring, and I usually go straight to the shower and the bed after my shift ends.  Interestingly, I think I’m actually gaining quite a bit of weight.  The work is hard and the food is excellent, so I’ve been eating a bunch. I’ve been getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night, which is more than I normally get when I am at home, especially during the school year.  One thing I have been noticing ever since the trip started is that I have been having quite nightmarish dreams every night.  This is rare for me, as I usually either don’t have dreams or can’t remember the ones that occur.  I initially thought that this might be due to the rocking of the boat, or maybe to the slight change in my diet, but I think I’ve finally found the culprit – Dramamine®.  Research has indicated that this anti-motion sickness drug can cause “disturbing dreams” (Wood, et al., 1966), and I have been taking this medication since the trip started.  This hypothesis is consistent with the observation that my nightmares lessened when I reduced my daily Dramamine® dose from 2 pills to one. I finished Everything is Illuminated and have begun a new novel (Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald). I am now well into the second week of my trip!

Did You Know?

Earrings can be made from fish otoliths (ear stones).  These seem to be quite popular in many port cities.  Check out this article from the Juneau (Alaska) Empire Newspaper.

Notable Species Seen

David Walker: Introduction, June 22, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
David Walker
Anticipating Departure on NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 24 – July 9, 2015

Mission: SEAMAP Bottomfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 22, 2015

Introduction

Greetings from Austin, Texas.  My name is David Walker, and I will be posting here over the next couple of weeks to chronicle my participation in the second leg of the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) SEAMAP Summer Bottomfish Survey in the Gulf of Mexico.  I leave for Galveston tomorrow and could not be more excited.

Backpacking Big Bend

On a recent backpacking trip to Big Bend National Park

About Me: I am about to begin my sixth year as a high school teacher at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA) in Austin, Texas.  LASA is a public magnet school which draws students from the entirety of Austin Independent School District.  Currently, I teach three courses — Planet Earth, Organic Chemistry, and Advanced Organic Chemistry.  Planet Earth is a project-based geobiology course with a major field work component, which consists of the students completing field surveys of organisms in local Austin-area parks and preserves.  Organic Chemistry is an elective course which covers the lecture and laboratory content of the first undergraduate course in organic chemistry.  Advanced Organic Chemistry is an elective course framed as an independent study, in which students address the content of the second undergraduate course in organic chemistry.  I also sponsor our school’s Science Olympiad team, and we compete around the nation in this science and engineering competition.  This year, LASA Science Olympiad placed third in the nation, this representing the best any team from Texas has ever performed!  Outside of teaching, my interests include backpacking, fly fishing, ice hockey, birding, record collecting, photography, dancing, and karaoke, in no particular order.

About NOAA:  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a scientific agency of the United States government whose mission focuses on monitoring the conditions of the ocean and the atmosphere.  More specifically, NOAA defines its mission as Science, Service, and Stewardship — 1) To understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, 2) To share this knowledge and information with others, and 3) To conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources.  NOAA’s vision of the future consists of healthy ecosystems, communities, and economies that are resilient in the face of change [Source — NOAA Official Website].

About TAS: The Teacher at Sea Program (TAS) is a NOAA program which provides teachers a “hands-on, real-world research experience working at sea with world-renowned NOAA scientists, thereby giving them unique insight into oceanic and atmospheric research crucial to the nation” [Source — NOAA TAS Official Website].  NOAA TAS participants return from their time at sea with increased knowledge regarding the world’s oceans and atmosphere, marine biology and biodiversity, and how real governmental field science is conducted.  This experience allows them to enhance their curriculum by incorporating their work at sea into project-based activities for their students.  They are also able to share their work with their local community to increase awareness and knowledge of the state of the world’s oceans and atmosphere, and current research in this field.

My Mission: I will be participating in the second leg of the 2015 SEAMAP (SouthEast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program) Summer Bottomfish Survey in the Gulf of Mexico, aboard the NOAA Ship Oregon II.  The survey will span two weeks, from June 24 – July 7, 2015, beginning in Galveston, Texas, and ending in Pascagoula, Mississippi

The Oregon II research vessel was built in 1967 and transferred to NOAA in 1970.  Its home port is Pascagoula, Mississippi, at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Mississippi Laboratories.  More information about the ship can be found here.

Oregon II

NOAA Ship Oregon II in 2007
[Source — NOAA Website]

The Chief Scientist for the survey is Kim Johnson (NOAA Biologist), and the Field Party Chief for my leg of the survey is Andre DeBose (NOAA Biologist).  According to Ms. Johnson, the survey has three main objectives — shrimp data collection, plankton data collection, and water column environmental profiling.

1) Shrimp data collection involves catching shrimp in a 40 foot shrimp net, towed at 2.5 knots.  Caught shrimp will all be weighed, measured, sexed, and taxonomically categorized.  This is completed for 200 individuals in each commercial shrimp category, and real-time data is distributed weekly (see SEAMAP Real-Time Plots).  This data is of incredible importance to the commercial fishing industry, especially considering that the season-opening is in late July.

SEAMAP

SEAMAP shrimp survey data from 2014
[Source — GSMFC Website]

2) Plankton are drifting animals, protists, archaea, algae, or bacteria that live in the ocean water column and cannot swim against the current [Source — Plankton].  Regarding plankton data collection, the Oregon II houses two types of collection nets — dual bongos and a neuston net.  As many plankton are microscopic in size, these nets contain a very fine mesh.  The dual bongos are used to sample the water column at an oblique angle, while the neuston net is used to collect surface organisms (“neuston” is a term used for organisms that float on top of the water or exist right under the water surface — see Neuston).  This data is used to “build a long term fishery-independent database on the resource species important to the economy of the Gulf of Mexico” [Source — NOAA Plankton Surveys].

3) The third mission of the survey is water column environmental profiling.  These profiles are completed using a CTD (conductivity-temperature-depth) device, which is sent back and forth between the surface and the ocean floor (the entire water column) and allows for the collection of real-time data.  The main focus of this survey is the measuring of dissolved oxygen levels in the water to identify and monitor areas of hypoxia.  In aquatic ecosystems, hypoxia “refers to waters where the dissolved oxygen concentration is below 2 mg/L. Most organisms avoid, or become physiologically stressed, in waters with oxygen below this concentration. Also known as a dead zone, hypoxia can also kill marine organisms which cannot escape the low-oxygen water, affecting commercial harvests and the health of impacted ecosystems” [Source — Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Watch].  NOAA has partnered with the National Coastal Data Development Center (NCDDC) and other agencies to centralize this data, which has been collected and analyzed for 15 years.  This summer’s survey is quite important, as the large amount of rainfall over the past two months could have significantly affected levels of dissolved oxygen in the ocean, and accordingly, zones of hypoxia.

My Goals: Through this program, I hope to accomplish four main objectives —

1) Learn as much as I can about the biology I encounter, especially in terms of taxonomic classification and biodiversity.  This will be directly applicable to the biodiversity unit and project in my Planet Earth class.

2) Understand in detail the methods by which NOAA real-time data is collected, plotted, and presented to the public.  This will be directly applicable to updating the data analysis and presentation portions of the biodiversity project in my Planet Earth class.

3) Upon my return, create a project-based activity for my Planet Earth students, based on the research I conduct aboard the ship.  Students will use the real-time data from my leg of the survey (to be posted online) to come to conclusions regarding the biologic and environmental profile of the Gulf of Mexico.  This will become part of the Planet Earth course unit global biodiversity.

4) Present my research experience and resulting project-based curriculum to the science faculty of LASA High School, emphasizing the value of research-based activities and projects in high school science.

That’s it from me.  My next post will be from the Gulf of Mexico!

David Walker
NOAA Teacher at Sea
LASA High School
Austin, Texas

   

Julia West: Bongos! March 22, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 22, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time 1700; clouds 100%, stratus; wind 325° (NNW), 9 knots; air temperature 22°C, sea temperature 25°C

Science and Technology Log

Here’s what we have covered as of Sunday evening, 3/22. I’m getting quite the tour of the Gulf! Notice we are going back and forth across the shelf break (the edge of the continental shelf), as that is our area of interest.

Stations covered 3/22

This is what we’ve covered so far. We’re doing well!

Again, thanks to all of you who are reading and asking questions. One recent question had to do with whether we are bringing specimens back. So let me explain what we do with them. Most plankton are so small that you see them best through a microscope. So the “specimens” that we are bringing back are all in jars – thousands of organisms per jar! Every time we collect samples, we get at least three jars – two from the bongo nets and one (or more) from the neuston net. That’s not including the CUFES samples described earlier, which are only big enough for a tiny bottle. Here are some pictures:

Kim labeling a sample

Kim Johnson (scientist) in the wet lab, labeling a sample. Notice the cardboard boxes – they are all full of sample jars, both empty and full.

Bongo sample

This is a nice sample from one of the bongo nets. Lots of little guys in there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These samples get brought back to shore for analysis in the NOAA lab. Oddly, many of the samples get sent to Poland to be analyzed! Why Poland, you ask? Well, for a few decades we have had a cooperative agreement with the Polish sorting and identification center. They remove the fish and eggs from all samples, as well as select invertebrates. These specimens and the data get sent back to US for analysis. We double check some of the IDs, and plug the data into models. (If you are a biology student, this is an example of how models get used!) The information then goes to fisheries managers to use to help form fishing regulations. This division of NOAA is called the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which manages stocks of fish populations.

NOAA has been doing spring and fall plankton sampling for 30 years now. Winter sampling is newer; it started in 2007. SEAMAP (SouthEast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program) is cooperative agreement between the Gulf states, federal (NOAA), and university programs. The samples from the states and universities get sent to Poland with our samples. The the timing of the surveys is to target specific species when they are spawning. This winter survey is targeting grouper, tilefish, and other winter spawning species. The other surveys target bluefin tuna, red drum, red snapper, and mackerels, which spawn at other times of the year. The invertebrate data is used to build an understanding of invertebrate community structure throughout the Gulf.

In science, research is cumulative. We know, from past research, what the mortality rate of some fish species is. So if we get a fish larva or fry that is a certain size, we can estimate the percentage of that size larvae that will reach adulthood, and back calculate to see how much mortality has already happened to get fish of that size. All this allows us to get a peek into the size of adult population.

The first piece of equipment that we use when we get to each station is the bongo nets. You can see how they got their name!

Bongos

The bongo nets just entering the water. They will be lowered to 200m, or near the bottom if it is shallower.

Here are the bongos ready to be deployed:

Bongos ready to deploy

These bongos are ready to go as soon as we get the OK.

Flow meter for bongos

This little whirlybird is the flow meter.

SeaCAT

The SeaCAT

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The flow meter is inside each bongo net, near the top. We read the numbers on it before the net goes out, and after it comes back. Using this information – the rate of flow, together with the area of the opening, we can calculate the volume of water filtered. The SeaCAT is a nifty unit that measures conductivity (salinity), temperature, and depth. Since we have a much fancier unit to measure these factors, we use this primarily for depth, so we know when we are getting to 200 meters (or the bottom, whichever comes first). We go to 200 meters because that is the lowest effective light penetration. Phytoplankton need light, and zooplankton need phytoplankton! What’s more, larval fish have not yet developed their lateral line (the organ that many fish use to sense vibrations in the water around them), so they feed visually. Even if they want to eat something below the photic zone, they wouldn’t be able to “see” it yet.

I, of course, am full of questions, and knowing that I’m supposed to identify every acronym I write, I asked what SeaCAT stands for. The unit is made by a company called SBE (Sea Bird Enterprises), so is the CAT just a fun name that they came up with? Nobody knew the answer! But everyone was curious, and Tony and Steve (both electronics technicians) did some emailing and got the answer straight from SBE. CAT stands for “Conductivity And Temperature” (seems we could have figured that out). And the Sea? Could be for Seabird, Seattle, or just the plain ol’ sea!

Deploying the bongos

Here I am holding the “codends,” ready to drop them over the side. The crane does all the heavy lifting. Photo by Andy Millett

 

Once we get the nets in the water, the crane operator monitors the speed that it is lowered. Our job is to communicate the “wire angle” constantly to the bridge and the lab. Here’s how this is done:

Measuring wire angle

Measuring the wire angle (angle of the cable) with the inclinometer. Photo by Madalyn Meaker.

The angle of the cable is important because it allows the nets to sweep the desired amount of water as they are pulled up. If the wire angle is too high (above 55°), the crew on the bridge slows the ship down just a bit. The perfect angle is 45°. Many other factors can mess this up, most notably current. The ship has to be facing the right direction, for example, so the current isn’t coming toward the ship (have you ever been fishing and had your line swept under the boat?). It’s tricky business, requiring constant communication between bridge, lab, and deck! Oh, and by the way, the cable is a “smart wire,” meaning it has electrical flow through it, which is how the depth gets communicated to the computers. Fascinating technology, both on the micro and macro scale!

Once we pull in the bongos, we hose them off very thoroughly, to get any of the little plankton that are stuck to the net. They are all funneled into the codend, which is a PVC cylinder. From there, we dump the sample into a sieve, and transfer it into a jar, and get read to do it again in 3 hours or so.

Bongo cod end

This is a close-up of the “cod end” of the bongo, where the plankton get funneled into.

Plankton from the bongo

This is the sample from one of the bongo nets. Can you see why it’s hard to come up with pictures of individual organisms? There are thousands in here!

Did I tell you that sampling goes on 24/7? Perhaps you figured that out when you heard the shift times. It costs a lot to run a ship; operations continue whether it’s night or day.

Personal Log

Now, to keep people happy when they are living in close quarters, far from home, and working strange shifts, what’s the most important thing of all? FOOD! The Gunter is well known among NOAA circles for having fantastic food for people of all diet types and adding ethnic flavor to her meals. The person responsible for our good and abundant food is Margaret, our Chief Steward. She has worked for NOAA for ten years, and says it’s the best job she has ever had. Her husband is now retired from the Coast Guard, so they moved around a lot. Margaret worked for the Coast Guard for four years, then went back to cooking school, and had various other jobs before signing on with NOAA. She has a few years left before she retires, and when she does, what will she do? She wants to do subsistence farming! This is right up my alley – Margaret and I have a lot to talk about! Not to mention the fact that Margaret makes her own juices, some amazing homemade hummus, AND dries her own fruit (dried cherries -yum!).

Margaret, chief steward

Margaret, assembling some spinach lasagna rolls while talking about her life.

Margaret also has a helper, Mike, who was reluctant to have his picture taken. He’s not the usual assistant steward, but sure seems highly capable! It always sounds like a lot of fun is being had in the galley.

Gunter dining room

The dining room, or “mess deck.”

condiment selection

World’s largest selection of condiments, including anchovy sauce and REAL maple syrup!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lunch spread

Decisions….

more food

and more decisions…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s it for this post – I’m getting hungry. Time to eat!

Challenge Yourself

What executive branch of the U.S. government does NOAA belong to? Is it the same branch that oversees our national parks? How about our national forests?

Did You Know?

There are nearly 4000 active oil and gas platforms in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico (NOAA), and more than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells (Assoc. Press, 2010)

Oil and gas platforms in the Gulf

Locations of the active oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. From http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/

 

Julia West: Getting Ready to Head South to the Gulf of Mexico! March 11, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
(Almost!) Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 11, 2015

Introduction

Hello from the frozen north! From the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York, and from almost as cold southern Vermont, I welcome you to this blog of my new adventure. My name is Julia West, and in just a few short days I will be embarking on a new journey, leaving this place where the average temperature last month was a cozy 5°F (-15°C) and joining the crew and scientists aboard the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter in the Gulf of Mexico, where it will be more like 60°F (15°C).

The Gordon Gunter

NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter

The Gordon Gunter, length 224′, first launched in 1989 as the U.S. Naval ship Relentless, and converted to its present configuration for NOAA in 1998. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

First of all, if you’re the type who asks as many questions as I do (and I hope you are – questions are good!), you might be wondering why am I saying hello from two places, both NY and VT. Well, Oak Meadow School, “where” I teach, is in Brattleboro, VT. I live in NY, 3 hours away. And the students? They are everywhere! But of course if you are an Oak Meadow student, you already know all this. So I will say I am from both places, and I represent homeschooled students throughout the world, who will hopefully be tuning into this blog and adding comments. I invite everyone reading this to ask questions and share comments – I don’t need to know who you are, but hope you will introduce yourself.

I teach high school science, mostly biology and environmental science, and health, to homeschooled students through our distance learning program. I have been working for Oak Meadow for 22 years now. I am always looking for ways to bring our students together in our global community, and what better way to do that but to go out into the one “world ocean” that we all share. I’m passionate about science and scientific research, and very excited to share with you all that I learn. And believe me, I have much to learn. It’s been a long time since I’ve done any real field work, and the technology has changed so much that I am getting into student mode!

More About Me

Julia West - skiing Feb 2015

This is me on a backcountry ski tour last week here in the Adirondacks

 I would have to say I’m a landlubber who loves oceans. I’m more comfortable in the mountains where I can range far and wide, yet the unknown has a strong pull on me – I love new challenges. Living in a small floating space will be my first entry into a whole new world, which I hope will lead to more sailing experiences in the future. I don’t even know yet if I get seasick! I grew up with small boats on the many lakes we have here; I’ve taken plenty of ferries in various oceans, but I’ve never spent real time at sea. I love the outdoors – I am an avid cross-country skier, biker, hiker, and whitewater raft guide.

I don’t know the Gulf of Mexico; I have spent very little time in the south. We all hear about the Gulf in the news, and often not in a good way: hurricanes, BP oil spill, the dead zone…. I teach about these topics. I’m excited to get a firsthand perspective on the important research being done there. More on that soon, but first, I have to share this picture of some of the cool NOAA goodies that came in the mail last week! I have to admit – I really like the NOAA logo.

NOAA TAS goodies

The cool TAS swag that came from NOAA!

What I Know about NOAA

When most people think about NOAA, they are probably thinking about the National Weather Service forecast. NOAA is so much more! I have used the website as an incredible resource on meteorology, anything related to the oceans or atmosphere, fisheries, and climate science. As a science geek, I just have fun clicking around the NOAA website, checking it all out. It is NOAA scientists who map the ocean floor, providing safe passage for shipping. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service takes the lead in stewardship of the marine ecosystems in the U.S. And if you want the latest in climate monitoring and predictions, look to NOAA.

I also have learned a little bit about NOAA through my daughter, Joy. She was a Hollings scholar in college, which opened the door to employment with NOAA in Woods Hole, MA. Now a PhD candidate in marine biology, she still does some research on NOAA ships. Here is a picture of Joy on the R/V Auk a few years ago. The yellow creature is called a marine autonomous recording unit (MARU), otherwise known as a pop-up. It is deployed into waters of the continental shelf to record the sounds of marine mammals. These units are anchored to the bottom, and in six months, when it is time to retrieve them, an acoustic signal triggers the cable to release, and the unit “pops up” to the surface, where it is found and picked up.

Joy doing NOAA research

My daughter Joy (see any resemblance?) ready to deploy a pop-up in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off of Cape Cod. Photo credit: Denise Risch.

It was partly through Joy that I heard about the Teacher at Sea program, and I also have to credit her for reviving my interest in field science. So here I am!

What I Will Be Doing

What is a winter plankton survey anyway? I will be sharing lots of details about that in the next few weeks, as I learn. The fish resources in the Gulf (or anywhere) are important to humans, and it is through constant monitoring that we keep up on the status and health of fish populations. This data informs fishing regulations. The status of non-fishery species (those not used by humans) is equally important, as you know, because all species are necessary for a healthy ecosystem.

We will be sampling fish eggs, larvae, and juveniles, as well as their zooplankton predators and prey, to determine their abundance and distribution. We will be measuring physical properties of their habitat, as well as primary productivity. That’s about as far as I will go right now, at the risk of giving you incorrect information! I’ll be sharing details about the tools and methods used in upcoming blog posts.

Meanwhile, this map below shows the sampling locations – if you need me, you can look for me in one of these spots!

SEAMAP monitoring stations

SEAMAP monitoring stations in the Gulf of Mexico. You can be sure to find us around here somewhere! Photo credit: SEFSC (NOAA website)

New? Terms

If you can’t remember what plankton is, it’s time to look it up! How about primary productivity? Feel free to share your definitions by leaving a comment.

Today’s Question (leave a reply in the comment section with your answer!)

Who was Gordon Gunter?

Lastly

I love maps, and couldn’t help adding one. First stop Pascagoula, MS NOAA lab, where the ship will be waiting. Next “stop,” Gulf of Mexico!