Robert Ulmer: Just Keep Walking, June 22, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Robert Ulmer

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

Underway from June 15 to July 3, 2013

Current coordinates:  N 56⁰56.023’, W 133⁰56.343’

(at Frederick Sound in Keku Strait off Kake, Alaska)

Mission: Hydrographic survey

Geographical area of cruise: Southeast Alaska, including Chatham Strait and Behm Canal, with a Gulf of Alaska transit westward to Kodiak

Log date: June 22, 2013

Weather conditions: 14.08⁰C, overcast skies with increasing cloud coverage, 92.82% relative humidity, 1014.29 mb of atmospheric pressure, light variable winds (speed of less than 3.5 knots with a heading between 10⁰ and 19⁰)

Passing cruise ship

This large cruise ship is one of many seagoing vessels ships in Southeastern Alaska that rely on NOAA-produced nautical charts for safe navigation.

Explorer’s Log:  Long days on the trail

Fog in the morning at the mouth of Bay of Pillars

Thick fog had settled on Chatham Strait, where the launches would be surveying for the day, as seen from the ship’s anchored location in Bay of Pillars.

When we think about explorers, we usually focus on the “big moments” – the crescendos of excitement that build as the storytellers regale us with tales of daring escapes from danger, amazing sights visible only from the summit, or exotic flavors tasted upon the foreign shore.  But life-long explorers know that those moments are far outnumbered by the sometimes seemingly endless minutes or hours, days or weeks, maybe even months or years of simply walking the path, step after step after step, watching the slow passing of tree after tree after tree.

Those less thrilling hours rarely are described in the grand adventure stories, but in those countless footfalls lie many of the greatest parts of exploration, for it is only in those moments that the explorer has time to ponder.

Smooth water and thick fog

Smooth water and thick fog are common conditions in the navigable waterways of Southeast Alaska, underscoring the importance of good nautical charts.

In 1905 a very bright young man in his mid-twenties worked for a few years as a clerk in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland.  Although the post gave him access to interesting new inventions and processes being developed in electronics, thermodynamics, mechanics, and communications, his job often required him to grind through the daily routine of receiving, reviewing, and filing thousands upon thousands of technical and administrative documents, tasks which his brilliant mind could achieve without much effort.  Not too exciting, perhaps.  But it is only in that easy comfort of performing the same routine behaviors minute after minute that the young clerk found the quiet sanctuary to evaluate and synthesize a miasma of strange ideas and eventually synthesize them into five papers about matter, time, energy, space, and motion that would revolutionize the field of physics.

Indeed, not every person is Albert Einstein, but all explorers sometimes find themselves in that “cruise control” mode, where the body knows the routine mechanics to perform, and so the mind can invest in a different sort of exploration.  Inward.

A small cruise ship passing in Bay of Pillars

Small cruise ships can navigate deep into scenic waterways, like Bay of Pillars along Chatham Strait.

TAS Rob Ulmer casts the CTD device

Teacher At Sea Rob Ulmer uses the winch aboard launch vessel RA-6 to cast the CTD device, which gathers data about conductivity, temperature, and depth of the water in the column from the surface to the sea floor.

A gardener mowing back and forth across the lawn, a painter applying the brush line after overlapping line to cover the wall, and a swimmer pulling stroke after stroke to swim his half-mile of warm-up laps all gain skill with their craft over hours or miles or practice, and so their minds can be freed to wander a bit, perhaps contemplating more deeply the patterns in the passing clouds, maybe solving a puzzle that has been teasing at the edge of consciousness, or maybe considering how a hedge of heather might look if planted in a certain area of the landscape.  Or – just as meaningfully – maybe the explorer in those moments revisits something far more personal or spiritual or metaphysical, some conundrum or quandary or dilemma, whether recent or from long ago, in a way that is available only because of the serenity of the repetition.  Sometimes such musings simply aren’t accessible when the mind is occupied with more accelerated or more cumbersome activity.

The CTD and the winch mechanism

This winch mechanism can lower the CTD device (the tube to the left) through many fathoms of water.

AB Jeff Mays casting the "fish" with the MVP

AB Jeff Mays casting the “fish” with the MVP

And as the explorer’s mastery of basic skills evolves from novice toward more expert levels, his place on the learning curve changes, as well.  The learning curve where the novice stands is steep, as every bit of investment offers the possibility of relatively fast and tremendous growth, while the marginal returns for the wise and skilled explorer of the craft come subtly from patient observation and insight.  For the rookie woodworker, for example, every spin of the lathe is an iteration of powerful change to be controlled and investigated and marveled at, but the more advanced craftsman who has milled thousands of dowels in his journey toward expertise in his craft has room during the lathe-work to possibly discover some small nuance about cutting bevels or reading grains that would be lost even if offered to the rookie in his excited novitiate mindset.

Operating the MVP

AB Tony Nielsen operates the Moving Vessel Profile (MVP) to cast and recover the “fish” as Rainier conducts a multi-beam survey of the sea floor in Chatham Strait.

 "Fish" in the water
The “fish” in the water

Some of my own moments of greatest inspiration have arrived when my friend Rien and I have been wordlessly walking the autumnally brisk trails of the North Georgia mountains.  No longer burdened with the previously-taxing questions of how to deal with unstable rocks at my feet or what gait to use on a certain downhill slope, in those miles of simply continuing to walk forward my cleared mind has unfolded complete verses of poetry, bits of insight about soccer or macroeconomics or how to differently arrange the gear in my backpack, even exact phrasings for whole lessons or assessments to be used in my classroom.  Those thoughts simply couldn’t have reached such clarity in the exciting exhaustion of the first morning’s climb up Amicalola Falls.

Survey/Launch team meeting on the fantail

Survey/Launch team meeting on the fantail

Yesterday morning, after Field Operations Officer Mike Gonsalves finished the usual pre-launch meeting on the fantail and dismissed the crews to their boats (with my shift remaining aboard the ship to learn some data processing skills), I began one of my most common activities aboard Rainier, taking photographs of the scene.  Pictures of the FOO and the Chief Boatswain coordinating launch activities, pictures of the rest of the crew at work, pictures of the ship herself, pictures of the waters and land features surrounding the ship…  all very routine.

Fog and rock in distance as launch vessel departs to survey Chatham Strait

This is the view forward across the bow of NOAA Ship Rainier as a launch vessel departs to survey the sea floor of Chatham Strait.

Closer view of fog over rock

Isn’t it difficult to not see the fog above the rock island now that you’re looking for it?

But then it happened.  I noticed in the distance beyond the bow of the ship a slight something.  Something different than usual.  A small hemispherical island – a rock, really – extending ten feet or so above the waterline, protruding through the fog that hovered ethereally a few feet above the water in every direction.  But it was the fog that caught my eye.  The fog didn’t just surround the rock; it blanketed the rock at not quite exactly the same elevation that it otherwise maintained above the nearby sheet of flat, still water.  And in the quiet comfort of my rote and repeated clicking of the shutter, I had an epiphany, a sudden symphonic upwelling of clarity about pressure and temperature and fluid dynamics and light that simply could not have happened if my thoughts had been cluttered with hasty necessities of rapid activity.

FOO Mike Gonsalves and HAST Curran McBride discuss survey data in the plot room.

FOO Mike Gonsalves and HAST Curran discuss survey data in the plot room.

Like most insights, I’m not sure if or when that particular bit of understanding will ever matter again in my future, but at the moment it was pure and good in its value to the core of my inner explorer:  I saw something that I had not seen before.

Full of surprises!

Some very exciting information during multi-beam surveying aboard the launch vessel surprises TAS Rob Ulmer and HAST Curran.

Boys will be boys

A whole day of surveying aboard the launch vessel can become a long venture in close quarters!

So where does this soliloquy about walking the long and quiet path fit with my experiences aboard NOAA Ship Rainier?  For the past several days and for the next several coming days, two or three small, crewed launch vessels per day (and often the ship herself) are painting overlapping swaths of sonar across the sea floor in Chatham Strait.  Back, forth, back, forth….

Imagine mowing an enormous lawn miles long at a slow walking pace with a lawnmower that needs constant adjustment and calibration every time you pass a tree or shrub, all the while keeping data about the thickness of the grass, the color of the soil beneath, the amount of dew on the blades, and the exact rotational velocity of the motor.  And this lawn is not just enormous by usual standards, either.  It’s miles long, miles wide.  Rain, snow, wind, uneven ground, you just keep mowing.  And when you get finished for the day, not only do you know that you have dozens of days left before you finish mowing this lawn as it continues over the horizon, but you also discover as you look back out with your special viewing machinery at home that there are a few spots that you missed on the first pass and must clean up tomorrow before you can move forward, maybe because the mower blade malfunctioned, or maybe because the ground underneath was slightly tilted as you passed above it.  But you keep mowing, both because you want the job done, but also because you love the work and take great pride in your work product.


The boys finally reach a resolution in their debate about survey data.

Replace it with painting a giant wall, and the analogy to multi-beam sea floor hydrographic surveying still is nearly perfect.

Oh, and don’t forget that you have a partner at home who will spend hours analyzing every bag of grass clippings, sorting and organizing and then weaving every single blade of grass into a beautiful and varied quilt of fabric that she makes from the piece that you bring her after painstakingly separating out random bugs and sticks leaves from trees and shrubs that look like grass but aren’t….  Whew!  This partner (following the analogy) is a member of the post-launch evening processing crew, by the way, who begins work as soon as the launch vessels return and doesn’t finish until hundreds of lines of data have been uploaded, converted into other numerical and graphical forms, and then “cleaned” for initial post-survey analysis aboard ship before being more thoroughly analyzed for months or years at NOAA shore-side labs and offices before ultimately evolving into published nautical charts or other useful end-products.

Painting the floor

Launch vessel RA-4 “paints” the huge floor of Chatham Strait one slow swath at a time.

Same fishing boat, another pass

Aboard launch vessel RA-6, we passed this fishing boat several times while surveying a “polygon” of Chatham Strait.

Day after day, mile after mile, the NOAA survey teams explore the seas, quietly walking their own trail so that other explorers can more safely navigate their treks, as well.  And every once in an inspired while, the hydrographer can be heard uttering a gleeful, “Aha!” about some insight discovered along the way.

Keep walking, my friends, even when the trail is long.  Sometimes it is there that you will do your best exploring.

Passing a fishing boat

Another pass of the same fishing boat.  A long day for both crews, perhaps, but at least the magnificent scenery leaves plenty of room for pondering.

Robert Ulmer: Build Upon a Strong Foundation, June 19, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Robert Ulmer

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

Underway from June 15 to July 3, 2013

Current coordinates:  N 56⁰35.547’, W 134⁰36.925’

(approaching Red Bluff Bay in Chatham Strait)

Mission:  Hydrographic survey

Geographical area of cruise:  Southeast Alaska, including Chatham Strait and Behm Canal, with a Gulf of Alaska transit westward to Kodiak

Log date:  June 19, 2013

Weather conditions:  10.93⁰C, less than 0.5 km visibility in thick fog, 95.42% relative humidity, 1013.38 mb of atmospheric pressure, light variable winds (speed of less than 3 knots with a heading between 24⁰ and 35⁰)


Explorer’s Log:  Survey, sample, and tide parties

Scientists are explorers, wandering the wilderness of wonder and curiosity their with eyes and minds wide open to events, ideas, and explanations that no other humans may have previously experienced.  And by definition, explorers — including scientists — also are builders, as they construct novel paths of adventure along their journeys, built always upon the strong foundations of their own reliable cognitions and skill sets.

Ensign Rosemary Abbitt making a level sighting measurement

Ensign Rosemary Abbitt making a level sighting measurement

Starting from their own observations of the world around them, prior knowledge, and context, scientists inject creativity and insight to develop hypotheses about how and why things happen.  Testing those ideas involves developing a plan and then gathering relevant data (pieces of information) so that they can move down the path of whittling away explanations that aren’t empirically supported by the data and adding to the collective body of knowledge, so that they and others might better fathom the likely explanations that are behind the phenomena in question.

Rainier lowering a launch vessel

NOAA Ship Rainier lowers launch vessel RA-5 for a survey excursion.

Because progress along the scientific path of discovery and explanation ultimately depends on the data, those data must be both accurate and precise.  Often these terms are confused in regular conversation, but each word has its own definition.

Approaching the shore from the skiff

A view from the skiff of the shoreline where the benchmarks and tide gauge staff already are installed.

Accuracy is a description of the degree of closeness or proximity of measurements of a quantity to the actual value of that quantity.  A soccer player who shoots on goal several times and has most of his shots reach the inside of the net is an accurate shooter.  Likewise, a set of measurements of the density of a large volume of seawater is more accurate if the sample data all are near the actual density of that seawater; a measurement that is 0.4% higher than the actual density of the water is just as accurate as another measurement of the same water that is 0.4% below the actual density value.

HAST Curran McBride visually examining the condition of the tide staff

Before making more detailed data collections, Hydrographic Assistant Survey Technician (HAST) Curran first conducts a visual inspection of the previously-installed tide staff upon arriving at the shore.

Precision (also called reproducibility or repeatability), on the other hand, is the degree to which repeated measurements under unchanged conditions show the same results.  If every shot attempted by the soccer player strikes the left goalpost four feet above the ground, those shots aren’t necessarily accurate – assuming that the player wants to score goals – but they are very precise.  So, similarly, a set of measurements of seawater density that repeatedly is 5.3% above the actual density of the water is precise (though not particularly accurate).

HAST Curran McBride collecting data near the tide staff

HAST Curran collects data near the tide staff during the closing level run in Behm Canal.

The NOAA teams that conduct hydrographic surveys, collect seafloor samples, and gather data about tide conditions must be both accurate and precise because the culmination of their work collecting data in the field is the production of nautical charts and tide reports that will be used around the world for commerce, recreation, travel, fisheries management, environmental conservation, and countless other purposes.

Cabin of the launch vessel

Crew of the survey/sample team in the cabin of the launch vessel (and the Coxswain piloting the boat)

Hydrographic surveys of some sort have been conducted for centuries.  Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs show men aboard boats using ropes or poles to fathom the depths of the water.  In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed a mandate establishing the Survey of the Coast.  Since that time, government-based agencies (now NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey) have employed various systems of surveying depths, dangers, and seabed descriptions along the 95,000 miles of navigable U.S. coastlines, which regularly change due to attrition, deposition, glaciation, tectonic shifts, and other outside forces.

Analyzing data aboard the launch

Hydrographic Senior Survey Technician Barry Jackson and Physical Scientist Kurt Brown analyze historic and new data from multi-beam sonar aboard the launch vessel.

For most of that history, data were collected through a systematic dropping of weighted lines (called “lead lines”) from boats moving back and forth across navigable channels at points along an imaginary grid, with calibration from at least two shore points to assure location of the boat.  Beyond the geometry, algebra, and other mathematics of measurement and triangulation, the work was painstakingly slow, as ropes had to be lowered, hauled, and measured at every point, and the men ashore often traveled alongside the boat by foot across difficult and dangerous terrain.  However, the charts made by those early surveys were rather accurate for most purposes.

Starboard of launch vessel RA-4

Starboard of launch vessel RA-4

The biggest problem with the early charts, though, was that no measurements were made between the grid points, and the seafloor is not always a smooth surface.  Uncharted rocks, reefs, or rises on the seabed could be disastrous if ships passed above them.

HSST Barry Jackson collecting sea floor sample

HSST Barry Jackson pulls a line hand over hand to retrieve a scooped sea floor sample from a depth of more than 45 meters in Behm Canal.

HSST Barry Jackson analyzing sea floor sample

… and then analyzes what the scoop captured: mud and gravel in this case.

Starting in the 1990s, single-beam sonar became the primary mechanism for NOAA’s surveys.  Still looking straight down, single-beam sonar on large ships and on their small “launch vessels” (for areas that couldn’t be accessed safely by larger craft) provided a much more complete mapping of the seafloor than the ropes used previously.  Sonar systems constantly (many times per second) ping while traveling back and forth across and along a channel, using the speed and angle of reflection of the emitted sound waves to locate and measure the depth of bottom features.

Handwritten notes about sea floor samples

Data about sea floor samples first are recorded by hand on a chart aboard the launch vessel before being uploaded to NOAA computers later.

Sound waves travel at different speeds through different materials, based on the temperature, density, and elasticity of each medium.  Therefore, NOAA also deploys CTD devices through columns of surveyed waterways to measure electrical conductivity (which indicates salinity because of ionization of salts dissolved in the water, thus affecting solution density), temperature (which usually is colder at greater depths, but not necessarily, especially considering runoff from glaciers, etc.), and depth (which generally has a positive-variation relationship with water pressure, meaning more pressure – and thus, greater density – as depth below the surface increases).

CTD device about to be deployed

This CTD device measures conductivity, temperature, and depth in the water. All three affect the speed of the sound waves in water, and the speed of sound is a necessary bit of data when using sonar (which tracks reflected pings of sound) to determine the distance to the sea floor.

The most modern technology employed by NOAA in its hydrographic surveys uses multi-beam sonar to give even more complete coverage of the seafloor by sending sound waves straight downward and fanned outward in both directions as the boat travels slowly forward.  Even though sonar beams sent at angles don’t reflect as much or as directly as those sent straight downward, uneven surfaces on the seabed do reflect some wave energy, thus reducing the occurrence of “holidays” (small areas not well-defined on charts, perhaps named after unpainted bits of canvas in portraits because the painter seemed to have “taken a holiday” from painting there).

Acquiring hydrographic data

FOO Mike Gonsalves and HAST Allix Slagle acquire hydrographic data with the ship’s Kongsberg EM-710 multi-beam sonar.

TAS Rob Ulmer retrieving sea floor sample in Behm Canal

Aboard the small launch vessel, everyone works. This is Teacher At Sea Rob Ulmer hauling in a sea floor sample in Behm Canal.

But that’s not all.  To help sailors make decisions about navigation and anchoring – and often giving fishermen and marine biologists useful information about ecology under the waterline – NOAA also performs systematic samples of the types of materials on the sea floor at representative points in the waterways where it conducts surveys.  Dropping heavy metallic scoop devices on lines* dozens of meters long through waters at various locations and then hauling them back aboard by winch or hand-over-hand to inspect the mud, sand, silt, gravel, rocks, shells, plants, or animals can be physically demanding labor but is necessary for the gathering of empirical data.

* A note about terminology from XO Holly Jablonski:  Aboard the ship, lines have a job.  Think of a “rope” as an unemployed line.

Additionally, Earth’s moon and sun (along with several underground factors) affect the horizontal and vertical movement of water on Earth’s surface, especially due to their gravitational pulls as Earth spins on its axis and orbits the sun and as the moon orbits Earth.  Therefore, information about tides is extremely important to understanding the geography of nautical navigation, as the points below the waterline are identified on charts relative to the mean low water mark (so sailors know the least amount of clearance they might have beneath their vessels), and points above the waterline are identified relative to the mean high water mark (including notation of whether those object sometimes are fully submerged).

Evidence of tidal changes along the shoreline of Behm Canal

Can you see the evidence of tidal changes along the shoreline of Behm Canal? Color differences form strata along the rocks, and lowest leaves of the trees give further evidence of the highest reach of the water.

Ensign Damian Manda manually levels the sighting rod

Ensign Damian Manda manually levels the sighting rod upon the “turtle” using a carpenter’s bubble-leveling device.

To gather accurate and precise data about tidal influences on local waters, NOAA sends tides-leveling shore parties and dive teams into difficult conditions – commonly climbing up, down, and across rock faces, traversing dense vegetation, and encountering local wildlife (including grizzly bears here in Alaska!) – to drill benchmarks into near-shore foundation rocks, install (and later remove) tidal gauges that measure changing water heights and pressures, and use sophisticated mathematics and mechanics to verify the levels of those devices.

Pondering the next measurement

Ensign Rosemary Abbitt and HST Brandy Geiger ponder the placement of equipment before the next level measurement.

Needless to say, this description is significantly less detailed than the impressively intricate work performed at every level by NOAA’s hydrographic scientists, and in the end, all of the collected data described in the paragraphs above – and more, like the velocity of the sonar-deploying vessel – must be analyzed, discussed, and interpreted by teams of scientists with broad and deep skills before the final nautical charts are published for use by the public.

Portable tools of the trade

A leveling rod is balanced on the highest point of a “turtle,” positioned carefully to be seen from multiple points.

As you choose where and how to proceed in your own journeys, remember that you can be more confident about your decision-making by using information that is both accurate and precise.  And keep exploring, my friends.

View from the benchmark

This is the view from the benchmark atop a rocky outcropping (under an 80-foot evergreen) along Behm Canal while righting a measurement rod with the tide gauge leveling party.

Did You Know?

NOAA Ship Rainier in Behm Canal with launch vessels underway

NOAA Ship Rainier in Behm Canal with launch vessels underway

Every ship in the NOAA fleet also is a voluntary mobile weather station, and so are many other seagoing vessels around the world.  For many years ships have been required to report their locations and identities on a regular basis to agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard and local or regional harbormasters.  Those periodic reports were (and still are) vital for local traffic control on the waters and for helping to provide quick response to emergency situations on vessels at sea.

View aft while launch is underway

The view aft through Behm Canal from the launch vessel

Eventually, someone insightful realized that having the ships also provide weather reports from their positions along with those identity-and-location reports would make a much richer and broader network of timely data for the National Weather Service, which is another branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  As NWS adds the weather data from those many boats to the data gathered at land-based NWS stations and from voluntary land-based reporters of conditions, their models and forecasts become stronger.

(For more info about being a volunteer weather observer or volunteering with NOAA in some other capacity related to oceans, fisheries, or research, please visit

Especially because weather conditions are the results of interactions among local phenomena, regional climate, and the global systems, building more accurate and precise forecast models depends on information from everywhere, but the result is that everyone benefits from the better forecasts, too.

Evidence of tectonic activity and rundown

Southeast Alaska is area with frequent tectonic activity, including uplift and earthquakes. Here a scar among the trees on the mountainside shows evidence of tectonic shifts, which also creates a ready path for meltwater to move downhill from the snowy mountaintop to the seawater below, taking trees and soil with it.

NOAA Ship Rainier ready for the returning skiff

NOAA Ship Rainier waits offshore, ready to receive the skiff returning with the tide/level shore party.

Robert Ulmer: Quo Vadimus? June 16, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Robert Ulmer

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

Underway from June 15 to July 3, 2013

Current coordinates:  N 55⁰47.254’, W 130⁰58.264’

(at anchor in Behm Canal at the mouth of Chickamin River)

Mission:  Hydrographic survey

Geographical area of cruise:  Southeast Alaska, including Chatham Strait and Behm Canal, with a Gulf of Alaska transit westward to Kodiak

Log date:  June 16, 2013

Weather conditions:  26.04⁰C, scattered altocumulus clouds, 32.91% relative humidity, 1012.18 mb of atmospheric pressure, light variable winds (speed of less than 3 knots with a heading between 26⁰ and 51⁰)

A bit of breathing room in Wrangell Narrows

A rare bit of breathing room in the passage of NOAA Ship Rainier through Wrangell Narrows

Explorer’s Log:  Preparing for the transit through Wrangell Narrows

When watching a great concert, recital, or athletic event, we often forget the hours upon hours of preparation that were invested before the starting whistle or the rise of the curtain.  History remembers and recites the first few moments of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the surface of Earth’s moon, but too often neglected from that history are the many years of research, discussion, calculation, prediction, and practice by thousands of people – including Armstrong – prior to that famous “one small step,” for without those advance preparations the brilliant moment likely never would have occurred.

Photos at the top of Everest belie the training, packing, mapping, and grueling climb that precede the snapshot.  Last-minute buzzer beaters arise out of years of dribbling and shooting in empty gyms long after scheduled team workouts end.   The revolutionary insights of Copernicus and Kepler were built upon hundreds of previous models and millions of recorded observations and related calculations.  Great campaigns are waged on drawing boards long before they approach the battlefield.

Chart showing approach to Wrangell Narrows

This is the chart used during the navigational team meeting in preparation for Rainier’s approach to Wrangell Narrows.

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier the culture of preparation is omnipresent.  Posted on the door of my stateroom and carried in my pocket at all times is a billet card that delineates where I am to report and what task I am assigned in each of several emergency situations aboard ship.  Within an hour of getting underway from the port of Juneau, the alarm sounded for a fire drill, and every person aboard reported smartly to his or her assigned station.  Heads were accounted, gear was readied, and some crew members even donned full firefighting suits and deployed hoses and fans to address the fictional fire in the XO’s office.  Because every person aboard knew his or her role in advance, the ship was prepared for the drill.  And more importantly, because the entire ship participated actively in the drill, dealing with a genuine emergency, if necessary, will be more seamless and effective.

Then only ten minutes later, the alarm rang again.  This time an abandon ship drill.  As assigned, I retrieved my emergency gear and moved quickly to Muster Station 1 on the starboard bridge wing, where ACO Mark Van Waes explained in detail what would happen in the event of such an emergency.

Teamwork and Safety first

As this sign above the fantail proudly displays, NOAA Ship Rainier values teamwork and puts safety first in all operations and missions.

Leaving the dock at Juneau Port

Careful navigation requires attention to details, like avoiding this small dock while leaving Juneau Port.

Of course, most of the preparatory work aboard Rainier is not about emergency situations, but rather is focused on readying for the work of navigating and operating the ship or the scientific missions of conducting surveys and samples, and that aspect of life aboard ship is non-stop.  Everywhere around me, crew members and scientists are constantly working together, giving formal and informal trainings and lessons, offering one another ideas, insights, questions, and answers, unencumbered by the impediments of pride and arrogance that too often prevent achievement through growth.  To the left of me, a young ensign is given room to make navigational decisions, while to my right two expert hydrographers consult available data and each other while they brainstorm about technical and theoretical issues on their own horizons.

Passing Petersburg, Alaska

The entrance to Wrangell Narrows is alongside the town of Petersburg, Alaska.

Reviewing the data and documents during the mission

Scientists from the survey team review data and documents while aboard the launch.

And the gathering of minds aboard Rainier is impressive.  Today the hydrographic survey team assembled in the wardroom to talk about the upcoming week’s launches of smaller vessels to perform multi-beam sonar surveys and gather bed samples from the floor of Behm Canal.  Under the guidance of FOO Mike Gonsalves, data were shared, schedules were outlined, and every member of the team – regardless of rank or role – was encouraged to share thoughts, concerns, and inquiries relevant to preparation for the task at hand, the ultimate task of this leg of Rainier’s mission.  Like those other great events throughout history, here is yet another example of prior preparation preventing poor performance at the critical moment.  And those were not the last conferences regarding the survey launches, either.  A meeting regarding safety and other last-minute issues was held on the fantail before putting the launches out, and the various people aboard each small vessel constantly interacted to update and modify their ideas before executing their actions.

(Note:  My next blog post will be about the scientific survey launches, so stay tuned!)

The view forward through Wrangell Narrows

A panoramic view of the passage forward through Wrangell Narrows

The most impressive preparation during the past few days, though, was that of the navigational crew.  After hours of work compiling past data and available current information and building itemized route plans for passage through the potentially-treacherous Wrangell Narrows, Ensign JC Clark led a large and comprehensive meeting to discuss every bit of the upcoming traverse.  Utilizing charts, mathematics, weather forecasts, and expert opinions, the group of men and women in the boardroom created a plan of execution that considered everything from tides to local traffic, from channel depths to buoy patterns.  Adjustments were made in an air of excitement tempered by the confidence of experience, preparation, and skill.

Alidade on starboard bridge wing

This device (called an alidade) on the starboard bridge wing is used for visual bearings.

And when the ship approached the town of Petersburg at the mouth of Wrangell, the preparation paid off.  Turn after turn, command after command, the teamwork was superb, and the resulting passage was seamless.  The ride was so smooth as the bridge maneuvered Rainier through the slalom in that deep and narrow fjord, that only the beautiful scenery itself was breathtaking.

Chief Boatswain Jim Kruger practicing knots

During a brief opportunity to look away from the water, Chief Boatswain Jim Kruger worked on maintaining his expert knot-tying skills.

We tend to envision genuine explorers as being people who dare to travel beyond the horizon, choosing adventure over caution every time they set out.  But the truth is that every great explorer, long before he lifts his foot for the first step of the travel, asks himself and his companions:  Quo vadimus?

Where are we going?

Pre-launch meeting on the fantail

Field Operations Officer Mike Gonsalves conducts one last survey team meeting on the fantail before the launches get underway.

The answer to that question might be a physical location, or it could just as easily be a direction.  Up that mountain.  Toward that little island.  Around the bend.  It could even be broad and metaphorical.

Sea lions basking on a buoy at the entrance to Wrangell Narrows

The ACO pulled out the binoculars to answer his own question of why that red buoy at the entrance to Wrangell Narrows was listing so much to the right. The tilt was because these sea lions were using the buoy to bask in the warm near-solstice sun.

But regardless of the short answer, the great explorer knows that the value of good preparation ultimately is the maximization of adventure can be maximized.  Explorers may appear to disregard caution, but in fact, they have done the training, built the skills, plotted the course, and considered the likely obstacles in order to address that caution before getting underway.

But regardless of the short answer, the great explorer knows that the value of good preparation ultimately is the maximization of adventure can be maximized.  Explorers may appear to disregard caution, but in fact, they have done the training, built the skills, plotted the course, and considered the likely obstacles in order to address that caution before getting underway.

ACO Van Waes shared with me a superb insight:  The difference between a road map and a nautical chart is that a road map outlines a suggested path of travel, while the chart simply shows the traveler what things are out there.  The hydrographic survey teams and supporting scientists who work for NOAA make nautical charts so that seagoing explorers can continue the great human endeavor of creating their own maps to turn curiosity into discovery, and I am very proud to spend these weeks working and learning among the people who keep that grand tradition going forward.

So prepare yourselves, practice your skills, plan a bit, and choose a direction or two.  And then keep exploring, my friends.

Personal Log:  Father’s Day

On the day before I left Florida I cropped my hair closely and stopped shaving my face (for the first time ever), in part to minimize the need for maintenance away from home, and also as a minor-league scientific experiment to compare rates of hair growth on the face and on the crown.  After five days the chin, cheeks, and jawline seem to be winning the race.  But the most interesting datum – as so often is the case in scientific tests – is a peripheral notation:  When passing a reflective window this morning, I saw a familiar face framed by the short beard and small wrinkles at the edges of the sunglasses under the brim of my hat, but the face that I saw wasn’t my own.  This third Sunday in June, thousands of miles from home, sort of pensively half-smiling at a fleeting thought that was blending with a pretty view of the treeline off starboard, I saw the face of my dad looking back at me.  And my smile grew a bit softer and fuller when I caught glimpses of my sons in the reflection, too.

So happy Father’s Day to you three other Ulmer men who do so much to define this Ulmer boy.  I’m proud of you, and I love you guys.

And on behalf of children everywhere, happy Father’s Day to the rest of you readers who have undertaken the great task of raising kids.  Your work is important.  

Did you know?

Underway through Gastineau Channel

Underway through Gastineau Channel, outbound from Juneau

The ship’s propellers are called screws because essentially they spiral through the water to propel the boat forward by pulling water from in front and pushing it backward.  NOAA Ship Rainier has two screws, one starboard (right) and one port (left), and they spin in opposite directions to make smoother and more efficient fluid dynamics.  On this ship the screws constantly spin, but they are tilted differently to increase or decrease forward propulsion.

To increase forward vessel speed, the screws hang with a vertical profile so that the water moves horizontally backward from the boat, thus pushing the boat forward.  To decrease forward vessel speed, the screws are tilted toward a more horizontal plane, decreasing the backward push of water, and consequently reducing the ship’s thrust force.  It’s very much like holding your open, flat hand outside the window of a moving car and feeling the wind push it backward, upward, or downward, depending upon the angle of your palm relative to the car’s (and the wind’s) trajectory.  Newton’s Third Law of Motion says that every action comes with an equal and opposite reaction, and so the more directly backward the water is pushed, the more directly forward (with the same amount of force) the ship is pushed in the opposite direction.

Mark Friedman, June 19, 2008

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Mark Friedman
Onboard NOAA Ship Rainier
June 8-20, 2008

Mission: Hydrographic Survey and ocean seafloor mapping
Geographical Area: Southeast Alaska
Date: June 19, 2008

TAS Friedman holds up a macrocystis algae.

TAS Friedman holds up a macrocystis algae.

Weather Data from the Bridge 
Southern winds 10-15, Patchy fog, High of 55 º F.
Seas a slight chop with waves of 3-5 feet.

Science and Technology Log 

The POD reports (Remember from the last log what a POD is?) 
We began this nearly two-day journey Wednesday, June 18 after a short day of surveying. The day before, June 17, I participated in a coastline survey team to check on smaller marine anomalies that could be rocks or dense macrocystis algae (A.K.A. giant kelp in southern California) that often appear as a solid formation from aerial observations and laser surveys done by the Coast Guard. The same macrocystis algae that has fronds (leaves) up to about 18 inches long in California, grows to over three feet up here. Each frond is as large as a tobacco leaf (see photo). My marine biology students back in LA will enjoy the comparison as I am drying some to bring it back. We shall arrive in Kodiak June 20 at 0900, and the crew and guests will disembark to get some land time. Some of us off hiking, others R and R camping, golfing, biking, etc.  We’ll return to the ship to sleep and I depart back for LA June 22.

My Project and Lesson Plan 

The macrocystis laid out on a bench is one meter long

The macrocystis laid out on a bench is one meter long

My task on board the RAINIER has been successfully completed.  It has been to learn as much as I can about hydrography and the charting of nautical maps. I shall be able to share this information with others thru the creation of a lesson plan soon to be available on the Teacher At Sea website.

The primary purpose of this lesson plan “Marine Careers on Board NOAA Research Vessels” is to make more available a descriptive motivation of potential jobs and careers that NOAA offers. To accomplish this I developed a questionnaire which 25 crew completed, from the ship’s commander to the entry-level wiper or ordinary seaman. Each interviewee was photographed on the job and both documents will soon be posted on multiple websites and made available to teachers and counselors internationally. There are hundreds of jobs available on NOAA ships and land support positions that are rarely publicized. Through this effort I hope to be part of publicizing NOAA job openings available to any youth over 18.

An Unforgettable Journey 

I have been fortunate to be on board this premier NOAA research vessel, RAINIER, for two weeks as an observer and student. It has been an exhilarating experience I shall share with other science teachers individually and at national, state and regional science conferences. The Teacher At Sea program is an exceptional opportunity for teachers to learn and be part of real time scientific research that has concrete and immediate application to understanding the marine environment and the preservation of its character in the face of the human destructive onslaught. I leave a more committed environmental steward, materialist and marine scientist. Please feel free to contact me for any information about the program or materials associated with this experience. Mark Friedman.

NOAA Ship Rainier

NOAA Ship Rainier

Mark Friedman, June 16, 2008

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Mark Friedman
Onboard NOAA Ship Rainier
June 8-20, 2008

Mission: Hydrographic Survey and ocean seafloor mapping
Geographical Area: Southeast Alaska
Date: June 16, 2008

Here I am studying nautical charts as preparation for the Tidal Gauge expedition.

Here I am studying nautical charts as preparation for the Tidal Gauge expedition.

Science and Technology Log 

Each day the RAINIER’s “Ship’s Officer,” in collaboration with the field operations officer and the ship’s commander, issue a “Plan of the Day” also known for short as the POD. (Who knows what marine animals move in groupings called a POD? First one to reply from Los Angeles gets a free Alaskan souvenir!) The POD contains important information such as, for Sunday, June 15, Sunrise was at 0415 (4:15 am), and sunset is at 2139 (9:39 pm!)  It will be a long day! I rise at 6 am to read the POD and find my assignment.

POD Revelations 
The ship’s position is: Anchored, Palisade Is., AK. The POD also has tide levels, U.S. Coast Guard beacons in the area, the weather, and who the officer on duty is. The weather you ask?  How important, especially because many of us are going out on launches and the smaller skiffs for specific assignments. The launch drivers need this especially to make sure all operations are safe. The winds are mild, coming in from the south at 5-10 mph, cloudy with showers, air temperature a balmy 51F with seas of 1-2 foot waves.

The POD has major assignments for anchor watch and officers on duty. Safety is a constant refrain as there are anchor watch positions around the clock to staff the bridge (command center) sending regular weather reports to the Coast Guard and National Weather Service and maintaining a secure and safe environment. The POD also lists all the assignments for the launch vessels being dispatched by the mother ship—no not Battlestar Galactica or the Enterprise, but the RAINIER. Today two vessels will be doing sonar readings around San Christoval Channel and North San Fernando Island. The other two, one of which I will be on, is going to remove a tide gauge and do a recon (reconnaissance) mission for a new tide gauge location.

The Journey Begins 

Here I am learning to withstand the cold in my Arctic survival suit.

Here I am learning to withstand the cold in my Arctic survival suit.

7 am- We are all up for a hearty breakfast, made by three talented chefs (especially in the omelet, soup and dessert department).

7:30am- I struggle into my arctic survival suit and boots in preparation for a “wet landing.”  I feel like Sylvia Earle in her “Jim Suit” as I waddle like a penguin to the stern of the ship to board a skiff for an hour journey up narrowing channels and over rapids to reach our destination. (I have put on all layers of clothing that I brought with me from Los Angeles, preparing for frigid temperatures and lots of wind and mist en route.)

8:30 am- With a spraying salt mist and a wind chill factor making the temperature about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, we race up the labyrinth of islands and channels to our destination. A deer and her fawn stare blindly at us on our port side, a humpback whale breaches on our starboard. We even glimpse a couple of sea otters playing/rafting in the kelp.

On Location 
9:30 am- We have reached the tide (marine), or water level, gauge. Our assignment is to remove it after ensuring calibrations have been correct. The tide is coming in and the shore is covered with algae, mini-white barnacles, a sprinkle of clams, a species limpets and small purple mussel beds which are thriving.

A NOAA tidal gauge benchmark

A NOAA tidal gauge benchmark

What is a tide gauge and why are they important? 
Water level gauges are instruments to measure water surface elevation over long and short durations of time.  They have been used for centuries by mariners to improve their knowledge on the depth of water and apply this information to the chart. This information can aide in the calculation of tidal currents, the ebb and flow of water as the tides change. More modern gauges need a power supply to relay information via satellite to appropriate organizations interested in this data.

A tide gauge consists of a number of instruments including, foremost, a measured, calibrated staff that is securely mounted into rocks to give a visual baseline of water levels. It is connected to benchmarks by using a survey instrument called a level, which optically measures height differences on a survey rod, which I held during the operations. Benchmarks used by NOAA, and previously by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, are brass survey discs (see photo right) that are imbedded into bedrock and stamped with a code that correlates in NOAA data banks to date of installation, project, location number, etc. Five of them are traditionally imbedded at various locations in the vicinity of the staff. They are leveled between each other and the staff, establishing a mathematical correlation. Gauge measurements are all related to the benchmarks, which hold the permanent datum for the tide station.

The Underwater Component 

NOAA divers retrieve a submerged tidal gauge

NOAA divers retrieve a submerged tidal gauge

Another component of the gauge is an orifice (brass pipe with an open end) that is placed where it is continually submerged.  It is connected to an electronic readout instrument via strong plastic tubing that is filled with nitrogen. As the gas comes under more or less pressure, based on the pressure exerted by the quantity of water pressing down upon it (water pressure), it registers the height of water levels. (Similar to how air pressure is registered by a barometer, a little remembered instrument but critical to meteorological forecast and studies).The information on depth is thus recorded and electronically transmitted out of the area thru solar powered equipment. In addition to water levels for meteorological (weather) purposes, over time these tidal gauges, when coordinated with others and register actual sea level rise which is now occurring more rapidly due to glacial melting from global warming. They have also been used to register tectonic plate movements. We disassembled the land equipment after completing our benchmark surveys. Later we scouted for a new location further south for a new tidal gauge and benchmark installation site. Then the divers went into action (see above photos). Their job was to retrieve the submerged gauge and piping for future use. In the process they took a video of part of the undersea flora and fauna.

Back on the Ship 

All equipment is secured, checked and prepared for the next installation site. The gauge team tomorrow will secure benchmarks for the establishment of a new tide gauge station.  (Guess what? At the installation site they found a 1927 benchmark still intact and functional!!)

A sun star, a type of sea star, was observed during the tidal gauge dive.

A sun star, a type of sea star, was observed during the tidal gauge dive. 

Mark Friedman, June 8-9, 2008

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Mark Friedman
Onboard NOAA Ship Rainier
June 8-20, 2008

Mission: Hydrographic Survey and ocean seafloor mapping
Geographical Area: Southeast Alaska
Date: June 8-9, 2008

NOAA Teacher at Sea, Mark Friedman, helps deploy the CTD prior to surveys in SE Alaskan environs.

NOAA Teacher at Sea, Mark Friedman, helps deploy the CTD prior to surveys in SE Alaskan environs.

Science and Technology Log 

This is a NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) ship based out of the U.S. Northwest. This ship is primarily dedicated to the construction and updating of marine navigational charts that are of importance to marine commerce, navigation and general recreation. To do this they use SONAR waves emitted from the bottom of the launch boats. (Underwater sound waves travel at 1500 meters per second, four times as fast as sound in air.) Data obtained by the ships surveyors are sent to marine map makers (cartographers) in Seattle and also NOAA’S base in Silver Spring, Maryland where they are processed and constructed and made available to the public in paper or digital format.

June 8 

Arrived Juneau Alaska. Greeted at the airport by the ship’s XO (Executive Officer).  Onboard I was issued a bunk (or a rack as mariners call it) and given a ship tour.  Once settled I visited the town, including a significant museum of history, artifacts and anthropology of the indigenous peoples and early European settlers. Juneau is a stopping off point for many of the Northwest cruise ships cruising the inside passage.

June 9 

Snowcapped mountains surround the inside passage south of Juneau, AK

Snowcapped mountains surround the inside passage south of Juneau, AK

Safety instructions: multiple videos on asbestos, personal safety, fire emergencies. Drill practice: Abandon ship, Man overboard. Survival suit issued along with multiple style life vests, hardhat. Underway from Juneau 1600 for destinations near Sitka to begin depth soundings for marine navigational chart additions and corrections. All is well. Bright outside and it’s nearly 9pm Wednesday night.  Sunset is at 10pm and sunrise at 3:15am. It is a long day by our usual Los Angeles standards. The water is 41 degrees (so you don’t want to fall in or risk hypothermia (rapid loss of base body temperature (Who can guess the temperature of hypothermia?) which rapidly sets in) and the air a cool and misty 51 degrees.

Green conifers line the banks and small islands proliferate in the inner passage here just south of Sitka. The inside passage was made by a combination of glaciers, volcanic and plate tectonic action (subduction of North American and Pacific plates). The tide differential from high to low can be extreme…nearing 30 feet in the Juneau harbor!  Spruce and pine trees abound, and snow-capped mountains on either side of us rise up majestically as we move along at about 12 knots (nautical speed terminology, or about 15 mph). The spruce are afflicted by the same type of exponential pine beetle growth that is devastating California and Southwest evergreens. No drought up here so scientists have no hypothesis yet as to the cause.

I had to get up at 4am yesterday (even earlier than my usual 5am school day rise) for a wild ride thru close straits (aptly named Peril) (must get there at high tide so there is enough clearance beneath and currents are not as dangerous with increased volume of water) entering Sitka for our first series of data collection, cartography of inside passage.

The bridge of NOAA Ship RAINIER

The bridge of NOAA Ship RAINIER

RAINIER to the Rescue 

There is an important heavy emphasis on safety and special cold water survival suits and vests, have been issued to all crew members, followed by instruction donning them and knowing out stations to report to for such rises as “fire onboard” and “man overboard.” We have already had an abandon ship drill. Yesterday after I joined three boats of marine surveyors which go out to surrounding areas in 29 foot launches to begin data collection thru the use of sonar, the RAINIER saved two fisherpeople whose boat had taken on water and was rapidly sinking. RAINIER heard their MAYDAY and was within 2 miles so they sent a rapid launch to the scene and got there even before the Coast Guard. Fortunately the fisherpeople had on their survival suits so they were not in too much shock when they were rescued. It brought home to me the importance of these survival suits that are like insulated neoprene wetsuits that are watertight. I’m always wearing some type of floatation vest while on deck or in the launch, colored bright orange for easy sighting when bobbing up and down in choppy seas.

Personal Log 

I saw some favorites yesterday too…but not too close. Sea otters and whales but too far away to identify. The most common up here now are the humpbacks. The gray whales that have migrated up from Baja California, the ones that can bee seen off the California coast are already further north feasting on that yummy krill, a marine crustacean key to the food web). And the ship’s cuisine—fine and more than plentiful prepared by multiple professional chefs…lots of healthy food and Tapatio, my newfound hot sauce delight thanks to my Mexicano and Latino students.

Fortunately there is a gym so I hopefully won’t come back TOO much heavier. Crew and staff of about 50…mostly young, lots of women for a big change from my last extended marine experience six years ago on the R/V New Horizon out of Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego.

Vocabulary and Marine Terminology Hydrography- the science of measuring, describing and mapping the sea bottom, mudflats and the positions of stationary objects (seamounts, shipwrecks, etc.) Cartographer-makes nautical charts for the aid of moving ships on the ocean Echosounder-high resolution instrument to record depths of ocean bottom using SONAR (SOund Navigation And Ranging – similar to some marine mammals use of echolocation). Also a side-scan sonar can be used and is on the RAINIER. CTD-Instrument to collect and register conductivity (flow of electrical current), temperature and depth. Deployed by ship launches in each surveyed area to obtain data and make calculations on sound speeds of sonar under various conditions (deeper, warmer and saltier water increases the speed of sound waves due to density) Sound speed- Sound travels at a speed of 1500 meters/second faster than thru air that is 380 meters per second. (This enables whales to communicate over hundreds of m8iles of water)

Get Your Hands Wet