David Madden: Immersed in the Seascape July 18, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea
David Madden: July 18th, 2019


On board off the coast of North Carolina – about 35 miles east of Cape Fear, 40 miles south of Jacksonville, NC.  (33º50’ N, 77º15’W)

Mission: South East Fisheries Independent Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean, SE US continental shelf ranging from Cape Hatteras, NC (35°30’ N, 75°19’W) to St. Lucie Inlet, FL (27°00’N, 75°59’W)

Here’s our location from the other day, courtesy of windy.com.  And here is a good Gulf Stream explanation from our friends at NOAA:

Date: July 19, 2019

Science and Technology Log

Being at sea has got me thinking; about life at sea, the lives and careers of the men and women on board, and about the marine organisms around us.  Pause there for a minute.  Nature’s beauty and abundance on land is readily seen, so long as you travel to the right location and you’re patient.  The ocean, however, hides its multitudes beneath the waves.  I’ve found myself drawn to the ocean my whole life, and here on the cruise, I am drawn to staring at and contemplating the ocean and its life – the great hidden beneath.  You know the stats: the earth is covered by ~70% water, the deep ocean has been explored less than outer space, the ocean is warming and turning more acidic, etc.  I’m not saying that you and I don’t already know these things.  I’m only saying that you feel them differently when you are in the ocean, when you are immersed for days in the seascape.   

The goal is this cruise is to survey fish.  (SEFIS = Southeast Fisheries Independent Survey).  The science crew repeats a similar protocol each day of the cruise.  It looks something like this:

  1. Chief scientist, Zeb Schobernd, determines the site locations using NOAA sea floor maps. 
  2. The science team (broken into day and night shifts) baits six traps with menhaden fish bait, and starts the two GoPros that are attached to the traps.   
  3. The Pisces crew then deploys the traps, 1-6, at pre-determined locations (see step 1).  They do this by sliding them off the back of the ship.  Traps are attached to buoys for later pick up.
  4. Wait for around 75 minutes.
  5. Pisces Senior Survey Technician, Todd Walsh, along with crew members, Mike and Junior, drop the CTD [Conductivity, Temperature, Depth] probe.  See picture below. 

                *Stay tuned for a video chronicling this process. 

6. After ~75 min, NOAA Corps officers drive back to retrieve the traps, in the order they were dropped. (1-6)

7.  Crew members Mike and Junior, along with scientists, collect the fish in the trap and sort them by species.

8.  All fish are measured for weight and length. 

9. Depending on the species, some fish contribute further information, most notably, their otoliths (to determine age) and a sample of reproductive organs to determine maturity. 

10. Rinse and repeat, four times each day, for the length of the cruise. 

I mostly work with the excellent morning crew.

The most excellent and experienced morning crew.
Mike and Junior, running the CTD, and supporting their favorite NFL teams.

Here’s a view into yesterday’s fish count – more fish and more kinds of fish:

Here is a view off the back of the boat, called the stern, where the traps are dropped. 

On Wednesday the GoPros on one of the fish traps collected footage of a friendly wandering tiger shark.  Our camera technician, Mike Bollinger, using his stereo video technique, determined the size of the shark to be ~ 8.5 feet.  I added the location’s CTD data to the picture.  This is part of an upcoming video full of neat footage.  See below. 

Tiger Shark at 64.55 meters, footage from fish trap GoPro.

Personal Log:

Things continue to be exciting on board.  My mission to film flying fish flying continues (local species unknown/not really sure; probably family: Exocoetidae). But not without some mild success!  I managed to get some of ‘em flying off the port side near the bow.  Man are they quick.  And small.  And the seas were rough.  Yet I remain undeterred!  Here’s a picture of me waiting and watching patiently, followed by a picture of an unlucky little flying fish who abandoned sea and was left stranded at ship.  Poor little fella. 

Waiting patiently for the flying fish to fly. And fly right where I was aiming and focused.

General Updates:

  1. The seas have picked up quite a bit.  Rising up to 5-6 feet.  That may not seem terrifically high, but it sure does rock the ship.  Good thing seas were flat at the start, allowing me to get used to life at sea.   
  2. I just saw some dolphins!  Yippie!  Pictures and video to come.    
  3. Though not legal, I’m dying to take a swim in these beautiful blue waters.    
  4. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of watching the ocean.  *short of being stranded at sea, I suppose.  See “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” – a true story and great book that’s may have served as inspiration for Moby Dick.  I loved the book, haven’t seen the movie.  Or check out the lost at sea portions of the, hard-to-believe-it-actually-happened, “Unbroken” – great book, okay movie. 

Neato Facts =

NOAA Ship Pisces won NOAA ship of the year in 2018.  This is no doubt due to the most excellent crew, seen below.  Congratulations!

We’ve caught a number of moray eels in the fish traps.  They’re super squirmy and unfriendly.  Turns out they also have pharyngeal mouth parts.  Essentially a second mouth that shoots after their first one is opened.  Check out this fascinating look into the morey eel’s jaw biomechanics.

Please let me know if you have any questions or comments. 

Leah Johnson: All About the Fish, July 24, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Leah Johnson
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 21 – August 3, 2015

Mission: Southeast Fishery – Independent Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean, Southeastern U.S. Coast
Date: Friday, July 24, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Time 12:38 PM
Latitude 033.235230
Longitude -077.298950
Water Temperature 25.88 °C
Salinity -No Data-
Air Temperature 28.3 °C
Relative Humidity 78 %
Wind Speed 5.76 knots
Wind Direction 355.13 degrees
Air Pressure 1011.3 mbar

Science and Technology Log:
When the traps are reeled in, the GoPro camera attachments are unclipped and brought into the dry lab. The cameras are encased in waterproof housing that can withstand the higher pressure at the seafloor. One camera is placed on the front of the trap, and one camera is placed on the back. Each video card captures ~45 minutes of footage. The videos will be carefully scrutinized at a later date to identify the fish (since many do not enter the traps), describe the habitat, and also describe the fish behavior. While aboard the ship, the videos are downloaded and watched just to make sure that the cameras worked properly, and to gain a general idea of what was happening around the trap. Occasionally, there are some really exciting moments, like when a tiger shark decided to investigate our trap!

tiger sharkThis tiger shark appeared in the video from both trap cameras as it circled.

While the cameras are being prepped in the dry lab for the next deployment, we are busy in the wet lab with the fish caught in the traps. The first step is identification. I could not identify a single fish when the first trap landed on the deck! However, I am slowly learning the names and distinctive features of the local fish. Here are a few examples of the fish that we have hauled in so far:

Once the fish are identified, they are sorted into different bins. We record the mass of each bin and the lengths of each fish. Most of the smaller fish are returned to the ocean once the measurements are recorded. Some fish are kept for further measuring and sampling. For each of these fish, we find the mass, recheck the total length (snout to tail), and also measure the fork length (snout to fork in tail) and standard length (snout to start of tail).

I measured the fish while one of my crew mates recorded the data.

I measured the fish while one of my crew mates recorded the data.

The fish is then ready for sampling. Depending on the species of fish, we may collect a variety of other biological materials:

  • Otoliths (ear stones) are made of calcium carbonate, and are located near the brain. As the fish grows, the calcium carbonate accumulates in layers. As a result, otoliths can be used – similarly to tree rings – to determine the age of the fish. I retrieved my first set of otoliths today!
  • Muscle tissue (the part of the fish that we eat) can be used to test for the presence of mercury. Since mercury is toxic, it is important to determine its concentration in fish species that are regularly consumed.
  • Gonads (ovaries in females or testes in males) can be examined to determine if a fish is of reproductive age, and whether it is just about to spawn (release eggs / sperm into the water).
  • The stomach contents indicate what the fish has eaten.

This toadfish had snail shells in its stomach!

This toadfish had snail shells in its stomach!

The soft tissues are kept in bags and preserved in a freezer in the wet lab. Sample analyses will take place in various onshore labs.

Personal Log:
It is important to remember that this ship is home to most of the people on board. They live and work together in very close quarters. There are daily routines and specific duties that individuals fill to keep Pisces running smoothly. Cooperation is key. I do my best to be useful when I can, and step aside when I cannot. Despite my inexperience at sea, everyone has been incredibly kind, patient, and helpful. I am lucky to be surrounded by so many amazing people who are willing to show me the ropes!

Did You Know?
The lionfish is an invasive species in the Atlantic Ocean. Its numbers are increasing in waters off the Southeastern U.S. coast. These fish have few predators, and they are consuming smaller fish and invertebrates which also sustain local snapper and grouper populations.


This lionfish was in one of our traps yesterday.

Marian Wagner: From Fishing to Dissecting in the Wet Lab, August 22, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Marian Wagner
Aboard R/V Savannah
August 16 — 26, 2011

Mission: Reef Fish Survey
Geographical Area: Atlantic Ocean (Off the Georgia and Florida Coasts)
Date: Monday, August 22, 2011

Science Team on R/V Savannah Aug 16-26, 2011: Back row: Chief Scientist Warren Mitchell, Christina Schobernd, Katie Rowe, Mike Burton. Front row: Shelly Falk, Stephen Long, Sarah Goldman, Marian Wagner, David Berrane.

Weather Data from the Bridge (the wheelhouse, where the controls of the ship are)
S-SW Wind at 15 knots
(This means wind is travelling 15 nautical miles per hour, 1.15 statute miles = 1 nautical mile)
Sea depth today ranged from 45 meters to 74 meters
Seas 3-4 feet in the morning, 2-3 feet in the evening (measure of the height of the back of the waves, lower the number = calmer seas and steadier boat)

Science and Technology Log

In my last blog, I explained what I am doing on the  first half of my shift (noon to around 6:00pm/dinnertime) and how we conduct our research on the aft deck of the boat: we drop chevron traps to the ocean floor with cameras attached and then pick up the traps with fish sample collections.  The fish we trap and the cameras recording the activity around the traps help us estimate the fish populations.  We finish up this segment of our work on the deck of the boat by recording this data in a systematic data collection sheet called “Length Frequency”.  If we didn’t record the data the same way every time, it would be impossible to compare the thousands of samples in the past and into the future and understand what is happening to the populations of fish over time.

Length Frequency Data Recording

Here is a picture of us recording the weight and length of the fish and the frequency (how many we caught) in a systematic way,  always keeping track of where the fish were caught as well.  Because we catch large numbers of certain fish species (such as Vermillion Snapper, Red Porgy, Gray  triggerfish, and Black Sea Bass), we do not keep all of them for further research.  When recording/reporting “toss” or keep” got monotonous, I found ways to communicate creatively—how many words can you think of that rhyme with “toss” and “keep”? I got 11 for toss and 16 for keep.  David, Katie, and Stephen were such sports for going along with my silly games!

After this point in the day, the fish are in bags and put on ice, and we wash up for dinner.

After dinner, our work moves into the wet lab, where we prepare biological samples for further research.  For the rest of this log section I describe more about how and why we
use the biological samples.

Dissecting vermillion snapper in wet lab, in search of otoliths and gonads.

We use the biological samples to obtain and report important biological measures such as age, length, weight, feeding habits, and genetics.  In order to know specific ages of the fish, we take out a small bone in the fish called the OTOLITH, which is located in the inner ear. An otolith is a reliable source to obtain the age of a fish. They show age in rings similar to how trees show their age in their growth rings.  We also take the GONADS from the fish to give important information about reproductive development.  Here is a picture of me dissecting a vermillion snapper and taking out the otolith (right hand) and gonads (left hand) to send to the lab back in Beaufort, North Carolina, where scientists work.

Here I just reeled in a gray triggerfish, one of our target species for hook and line catch.

Sometimes after dinner we had time to fish with hook and line in the stunning sunset.  This method of catching fish provided us with fish samples to study that did not have stomachs full of bait like the rest of our fish samples caught in traps. We did this so we could study their stomach contents and learn about what they are eating and get information about the ecosystem they are dependent upon. We were targeting vermillion snapper and gray triggerfish, fish that are known to really gorge on bait in the traps.  Sarah was dissecting the stomach of scamp grouper and found an octopus beak!

Sarah dissecting stomach of scamp grouper and finds octopus beak!

When Sarah was dissecting the stomach of a scamp grouper, she found an octopus beak, the last part of the octopus to be digested. Exciting find!!

When fishing becomes chaotic, teamwork is key.

Here is one of my favorite pictures of all, captured during one of our hook and line battles, and a testament to the incredible teamwork of the scientists and crewmen. How many people does it take to catch a fish? Here, 5 of us were working on the same task.  Lines from 4 reels were tied up from a strong fish swimming in circles, and it took an intense team effort to unravel them in a critical moment. Success was sweetly earned.

Click here for more info on the fish we are studying for stock assessments.

Personal Log

I’m on a boat!  This phrase has been repeated many times and it captures my enthusiastic awe (with a touch of humor) that I have had many privileges, and the fortune to be around some remarkable people, day in and day out. I took the opportunity to interview a few of them so I could share it here.  (Next blog: Interview with Captain Raymond Sweatte)

Richard's showing me how to tie the speed bowline knot, see http://survival.atactv.com/?mediaId=743 to learn this knot.

Interview with Richard Huguley, engineer

Marian: When you were a kid, would you have imagined yourself here now?
Richard: Yes. In Mobile, Alabama, where I grew up, I played with wooden boats, making them go up and down the creek, and spent time catching crawfish. I could see this as where I’d be.
M: How often did you play outside?
Richard: From sun-up to sun-down.  I skipped out to the woods all day some days.  I was never afraid to be in the woods. I played with snakes, frogs, had a baby pet squirrel I kept in my pocket.  It poked its head out to eat, and then crawled back into my pocket.
M: How did you become prepared for work as an engineer on a boat?
Richard: I have worked in all different fields required of an engineer: electrical, metal manufacturing-welding, automotive, building race cars and motor cycles, etc.  I always had the interest to take a challenge someone else wouldn’t take—not a challenge that just required physical strength, but more of intellectual puzzle.  It takes lots of time.  I took the time to figure the challenges out.  I can visualize math.  My dyslexia is a strength I use to my advantage.  I see people struggling with something, and it’s like I see it from the opposite end.  I do it without thinking about it.  Jigsaw puzzles are good for this kind of challenge.  It would be good for your students to try doing a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces upside down so they build the puzzle from the angles of the edges.
Thank you, Richard, for taking the time to talk and share your stories and the many skills you taught me. You are one-of-a-kind and I hope you can come visit my classroom someday!

Katie Rowe on the deck of the aft.

Interview with Katie Rowe, scientist and scuba diver/instructor

Marian: What do you like about working in a lab?

Katie: Lab work is about exploration, you don’t know entirely what you’ll find. We’re looking for otoliths, etc, but there is a possibility to find anything!

M: What makes the best partnerships in the lab?

Katie: I like working with people who are organized and efficient, people who can interpret and know what needs to be done next.  It takes an organized system for people to work like this, like we work here.  The system works well here so everyone knows what they are doing, and what happens next so we can all step in and do what needs to be done.

M: What’s your favorite animal?

Katie: Bull shark, Carcharhinus leucas, because they are adaptable.  They can survive in fresh water.  In Nicaragua, one was found in fresh water going after fish to eat, and they thought it was a new species, but then realized it was the bull shark.  They have the highest testosterone of any animal in the world, so they are bad-tempered, but I still love them.  I named my cat Leucas after the bull shark’s Latin name.

Thanks Katie!  It was great to work with you day in and day out!  You are a tough gal and make an excellent partner, very organized and efficient!

Tossing grappling hook to "catch" buoys attached to fish traps.

Fun extra:  How do we retrieve the buoys and pull up the fish traps?  I got to try my hand at this new sport, the grapple hook toss.  I am so grateful to have had the chance to try my hand at so many different roles.  Thanks for the opportunity!

Thomas Nassif, July 20, 2005

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Thomas Nassif
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 15 – 24, 2005

Mission: Invasive Lionfish Survey
Geographical Area: Southeast U.S.
Date: July 20, 2005

A underwater photograph of the City of Houston shipwreck. Over time the ribs of the ship’s hull have been covered by sponges (pink fluff) and soft coral (colorful branches). Tomtate fish are pictured to the right.
A underwater photograph of the City of Houston shipwreck. Over time the ribs of the ship’s hull have been covered by sponges (pink fluff) and soft coral (colorful branches). Tomtate fish are pictured to the right.

Weather Data

Latitude: 33°38’N
Longitude: 76°55’W
Visibility: 10 nautical miles (nm)
Wind direction: 240°
Wind speed: 13 kts
Sea wave height: 1-2′
Swell wave height: 2-3′
Sea water temperature: 28.9°C
Sea level pressure: 1018 mb
Cloud cover: 6/8, Cumulus, Altocumulus

Science & Technology Log  

My excitement and fascination with this entire diving expedition grew even more when I heard that the divers would be exploring two shipwreck sites on the ocean floor today – “18 Fathom” in the morning and “City of Houston” in the evening. Fathoms are an old unit of measurement still used by navigators today to describe the depth of the ocean (1 Fathom = 6 feet deep). The dive site “18 Fathom” is a mystery shipwreck that was discovered at a depth of 108 feet (18 Fathoms). Shipwrecks provide excellent habitats for a variety of fish, including lionfish. The broken down hull and old passageways of a  shipwreck create a manmade reef upon which algae and coral grow, smaller fish hide, and larger fish feed. Rather than scrap old ships, many countries around the world clean and sink their old ships to the ocean floor to create artificial reefs for fish and other marine organisms.

An explosion of Tomtate (white fish) and Vermilion Snapper (red fish) envelop the water in a silvery red glow.
An explosion of Tomtate (white fish) and Vermilion Snapper (red fish) envelop the water in a silvery red glow.

After lunch, the boat steamed ahead to the next dive site, City of Houston. Far beneath the ocean surface looms an old Civil War Era shipwreck. Thousands of fish including Tomtate, Vermilion Snapper, and Silverside enveloped the divers, making the surrounding waters shimmer with silvery red. At times the number of fish were so great that the divers had trouble seeing even a few feet in front of them! Over one  hundred years after the City of Houston wrecked and fell to the seafloor, you can now see coral and algae taking over the entire manmade structure. Even so, it is still possible to make out obvious structures of the ship, including the engine and the hull.

Personal Log 

Today I went snorkeling off the NF4 once again and had a fantastic time swimming in the 84°F water under a beaming sun – It’s unbelievable that the Atlantic Ocean can be so warm during the summer months! Also, I’ve watching the divers in action as they descend to the ocean floor, collect live lionfish, and take stupendous photos of the deep ocean all inspire me to someday become a professional SCUBA diver myself.

Question of the day

What type of air do SCUBA divers breathe?

This depends on how deep you plan to dive. Regular air (the kind we breathe on land) is mostly nitrogen and only 21% oxygen. The tanks that the deep-sea divers carry on their back are filled with regular air, and they can dive up to 150 feet by breathing this air through a mouthpiece (or regulator). Other divers that only need to dive up to 113 feet (like our safety divers) use Nitrox, which has more oxygen (36%) than regular air. Finally, at depths up to 20 feet deep, SCUBA divers can breath pure oxygen (100%). The deep-sea divers on our cruise switch to pure oxygen 20 feet before they reach the ocean surface to speed up their decompression.

The two dangers with SCUBA diving and the air they breathe are:

1 – Too much oxygen can be toxic to your body. The deeper you dive, the less oxygen you should have in the air you breathe. 2 – At the same time, too much nitrogen can make you feel light-headed and put you to sleep underwater. Jacques Cousteau, French inventor of the SCUBA, called this “Rapture of the Deep.” That is why it is so dangerous for divers to spend too long in the deep ocean.