Sandra Camp: A Day in the Life of a Marine Biologist, June 17, 2015

Lookout fish!

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Sandra Camp
Aboard NOAA Ship Hi’ialakai
June 14 – 24, 2015

Mission: Main Hawaiian Islands Reef Fish Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Hawaiian Islands, North Pacific Ocean
Date: June 17, 2015

Weather Data: mostly cloudy, showers, visibility > 7 NM (nautical miles), winds east 10-15 KT (knots), air temperature 80° F, water temperature 80° F

Science and Technology Log

Days at sea begin early for the scientists aboard the Hi’ialakai. There are push-ups on the bow at 0630 (not mandatory), followed by breakfast at 0700. After breakfast, everyone meets outside on the deck at 0730 for a meeting about the day’s diving. Safety procedures are always reviewed during this meeting.

Morning Meeting
Morning meeting at 0730 in the fantail

Afterwards, the divers suit up, get their gear together, and get ready to board small boats, which will take them to the day’s scheduled diving sites. The way the small boats are lowered into the water with their passengers and gear from the larger ship is nothing less than a carefully orchestrated ballet of synchronized movement, line management, and communication.  The chief boatswain (“bosun” for short), the senior crewman of the deck department, is in charge of this process.  You can see him in the first photo, operating the crane.  Anyone on deck during this time must wear a hardhat for safety purposes.  You would not want to get hit in the head with moving cranes, hooks, or cables!

First, the small boats are lifted from the upper deck with a crane and lowered over the side of the ship.

Then, gear and passengers are loaded onto the boat, and it is carefully lowered into the water. Lines are released. and the boat drives away.

After that, the coxswain, the driver of the boat, takes the divers to the first survey site of the day. As we learn in class, a very important part of any scientist’s job is to gather evidence and data. Three to four groups of divers in separate small boats will gather data from 5-7 different sites each per day. After this project is complete, scientists will have gathered data from hundreds of different sites around the main Hawaiian islands.  At each site, they do fish counts and benthic (sea floor) analysis. They estimate the amount of coral present on the sea floor, and then list fish by their species and quantity. Each diver takes a clipboard with a waterproof piece of paper attached to it on which they record their data. They also carry waterproof cameras with them, as well as a small extra tank of oxygen called a RAS (Redundant Air System) that they can use in case their tank runs out of air.

After data is recorded for several different sites, the small boats return to the ship no later 1700, which makes for a very long day out on the water. Dinner is from 1700-1800, and afterwards, scientist divers head to the dry lab, where all the computer equipment is located, to enter the data they gathered on fish during their surveys.

Scientist Interview

While we were out at diving sites today, I had the opportunity to interview Jonatha Giddens, one of the divers on the boat. Jonatha is a graduate student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She has an undergraduate degree in coral reef fish ecology, and she is currently studying the effects of an introduced grouper (a species of fish that is not native to Hawaii) on the local marine ecosystem for her Ph.D.

Jonatha Giddens
Jonatha warming up after a dive

What are your primary responsibilities? Being part of the fish team, scuba diving, doing fish surveys, and entering the data collected during the day into computer systems at night.

What do you love most about your job? Being on the water!

What kind of education do you need to have this job? An undergraduate degree in marine biology

Do you have any advice for young people interested in your line of work? Get involved with research as early as possible. Find out what kind of research is going on in your area, and volunteer. Do summer internships at places that are farther away. You learn so much just by jumping into it.

Jonatha followed her passion and learned all she could about it. Now she has won an award from ARCS (Achievement Rewards for College Scientists) for her work in conservation ecology. ARCS is a foundation organized and run entirely by women to encourage female leadership in STEM careers. Go Jonatha!

Personal Log

Ninja Snorkeler
Don’t mess with this snorkeler!

I can sometimes go snorkeling while the divers are completing surveys, as long as I stay far enough away from them that I do not interfere with their work (they do no want me to scare the fish away).  I have to wear a knife strapped to my leg while snorkeling, in case I become tangled in fishing net or line (or in case there is a shark!).  Again, it is all about safety on the Hi’ialakai.

Did You Know?

The underwater apparatus held by Raymond Boland in the above photo is a stereo camera. It is composed of two separate cameras encased in waterproof housing. When a diver uses it to photograph a fish, two simultaneous pictures are taken of the fish. NOAA scientists calibrate the images using computers to get an accurate measure of the length of fish.

New Terms

chief boatswain – the person in charge of the deck department

coxswain – a person who steers a ship’s boat and is usually in charge of its crew.

benthic – relating to, or occurring on, the bottom of a body of water

Jennifer Fry: March 19, 2012, Oscar Elton Sette

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jennifer Fry
Onboard NOAA Ship, Oscar Elton Sette
March 12 – March 26, 2012

Mission: Fisheries Study
Geographical area of cruise: American Samoa
Date: March 19, 2012

Here I am processing fish samples.
The small boat dangles beside the NOAA ship Sette before it is deployed into the ocean. Pictured here, skilled fisherman,Mills Dunlap and Teacher at Sea, Jennifer Fry
The small boat SE6 is being deployed.

Small Boat Operations

Today I switched from the night shift to days.  Joining the crew on the small boat operations was a real treat.  The two 10-meter small boats are used for a variety of scientific study such as fishing, plankton tows, researching protected species, cetacean acoustic studies, and A.U.V. autonomous underwater vehicle maneuvers.  Today we will be fishing the ledge of  2% Bank for snapper fish.  When deployed the boats are raised and lowered off the side of the 200-foot Oscar Elton Sette for each fishing excursion. This is no easy feat, taking synchronized orchestration of all hands.

First, everyone involved has a safety briefing to discuss rules, procedure and safety tips, including the ship’s captain, scientists, crew members, and the 2 coxswains , Mills Dunlap and Jamie Barlow, drivers of each boat.

Once all the gear is loaded onto the boat such as fishing gear, the day’s water supply, ice chests filled with ice to keep fish cold, lunches, and personal belongings(sunscreen, hat, and windbreaker), we carefully step into the boat which hangs beside  the ship approx 8 feet above the surface of the ocean. The small orange boat hangs by one strong metal hook connected through a large metal eye which secure four  fabric straps at each corner of the boat. The boat dangles from the side much like a clock’s pendulum ticking each minute of time.

Crew member Doug Roberts, the ship’s boatswain or bosun, is operating the crane today.  The boat is then lowered taking its passengers to the ocean’s surging surface. Keeping our eyes on the large yellow metal hook, our life line to the Sette,  the small orange boat descends.

Once the boat hits the water, it becomes a bobbing cork, undulating with each approaching swell, frequently banging into the hull of the NOAA Ship Sette.

“Boom, Bang, Bash” as the small boat hits the hull of the great hulk.

Quickly pulling the hook out of the eye, the coxswain Mills Dunlap speeds away to find the daily fishing position using the boat’s G.P.S., Global Positioning System.  The scientists hope to catch a nice variety of snapper species and further their study on growth patterns of fish in American Samoa waters.

The small boat is deployed and retrieved in much the same manner, using a large hook and crane to lower and lift the boat in and out of the ocean.
Safety is paramount when deploying and retrieving NOAA small boats. All hands wear a PFD, Personal Floatation Device and a hard hat.

The seas were milder in the morning with swells of 6-8 feet which gradually made way for windier afternoon conditions producing choppy seas and blustery winds.

I was on the boat with  NOAA oceanographic scientist Ryan Nichols and  Mills Dunlap, skilled fisherman.  They both patiently taught me how to fish.  Wave conditions ranged from 4-6 feet which made for being a bit unstable on my feet.  Ryan has perfected his fishing technique, tying 4 fish hooks on each line, looking like a Christmas tree with each hook being a colorful ornament.   This allowed us to catch multiple fish on each line. Today’s operation was to fish as close to the Bot Cam, a remote underwater camera as possible.  Scientists hope to use the video tape fish behavior in the benthicpelagic range which is 100-200 fathoms deep/600-1200 feet.

The Bot Cam uses a tethered camera that is later released to float to the surface, and using acoustics a.k.a. sonar readings, scientists Ryan Nichols, Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center , Meagan Sundberg, Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research of the University of Hawaii, and Jamie Barlow , Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, will collect samples of fish at selected sites during the cruise.

The Botcam is being deployed off the side of the Sette with the help of Dr. Kobayashi and crew members Kelson and Johnathan.

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Scientists are researching fish behavior, competition, species interactions, throughout the water column.  Specifically they are looking at the bottom fish society, scientists refer the it as the “complex” and how they relate to each other socially, behavioral, clues into their social structure,  eating behaviors, predator/prey avoidance, response to fishing gear presence.  Looking at dominate and non-dominate fish behavior. Bottom fish snapper species and predator fish, Jack, a very dominate fish.  The Bot Cam reminds me of the behavior when you set up a bird feeder.

The fish were certainly biting.  The two small boats caught approx. 40 fish that day.

So far, it has been a very productive trip, and they have  caught  many snapper fish:

Four species of  snapper have been collected which include:

genus Pristipomoides,  Aphareus rutilans (long jaw job fish/lehi)

Furca (rusty jobfish)

Etelis (ruby snapper/onaga(Japanese)

two  species of tuna  in the Scombridae family

yellow fin tuna, and dog-tooth tuna

four species of grouper:

Total number of catch: 224

Teacher at Sea, Jennifer Fry examines and measures fish onboard NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette
Teacher at Sea, Jennifer Fry measures and processes fish off the coast of American Samoa.

Once on the Sette I joined the scientists as they processed today’s catch.  Forming a production line we worked to measure each fish including:

    • weight in kilograms
    • length using centimeters
    • determine if the fish is male or female by extracting the fishes’ gonad organ
  • harvest the odilith, ear bone, that helps determine the fish’s age. Extracting the ear bone helps scientists determine the fish’s age by reading the rings much like a trunk of a tree.

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All in all there was “Lots of sun and tons of fun and many fish.”

New Vocabulary:

cox·swain (k k s n, -sw n ). n. 1. A person who usually steers a ship’s boat and has charge of its crew

Boatswain or bosun (both /ˈbsən/): A non-commissioned officer responsible for the sails, ropes, rigging and boats on a ship who issues “piped” commands to seamen.

 small boats – A NOAA vessel used for a variety of scientific study such at fishing, plankton tows, researching protected species, cetacean acoustic studies, and A.U.V., autonomous underwater vehicle maneuvers

Tropical Birds Seen:

Red footed booby


Stormy petrols


Fairy duster