Caitlin Thompson: Zooplankton, Ocean Currents, and Wave Gliders, August 7, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Caitlin Thompson
Aboard NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada
August 1 — 14, 2011

Mission: Pacific Hake Survey
Geographical Area: Pacific Ocean off the Oregon and Washington Coasts
Date: August 7, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge
Lat. 47 degrees, 00.8N
Long. 124 degrees, 29.8W
Present weather: Cldy 8/8
Visibility: 10 n.m.
Wind direction: 323
Wind speed: 08 kts
Sea wave height: 1 feet
Swell waves – direction: —
Swell waves – height: —
Sea water temperature: 13.7 degrees C
Sea level pressure: 1018.8 mb
Temperature – dry bulb: 15.8 degrees C
Temperature – wet bulb:  14.7 degrees C

Science and Technology Log

On the fish deck in my work clothes

On the fish deck in my work clothes

The Shimada conducts research around the clock, with crew members working twelve-hour shifts. So far, I have worked with the acoustics team studying hake during the day, when the hake school together and are easy to fish. Last night I branched out, staying up with Steve Pierce, the oceanographer studying ocean currents, Jennifer Fisher, a faculty assistant at Oregon State University (OSU) who is studying zooplankton, and her intern, Angie Johnson, a graduate student at OSU. All the different research on this trip complements each other, and I learned more about the acoustic team’s work from the night people.

Gray's Harbor Transects

Gray's Harbor Transects

The map at right shows the transects we follow and the stations that the night team takes samples, which Steve chooses. Just like the acoustics team, he only chooses sites on the east-west transects. The night team usually works one transect ahead of the day team, and must have the ship back where they started by sun-up. Steve is mapping small currents because, he says, surprisingly little is known about ocean currents, even though they have a tremendous impact on ocean life.

He is especially interested in the polar undercurrent that brings nutrient-rich water from the south up along the west coast. A small current, it is nonetheless important because of the nutrients it carries, which come to the surface through upwelling. He uses an acoustic device, the Acoustic Doppler Current Profile (ADCP), to find the velocity of the water at various depths. The data from the ADCP is skewed by many factors, especially the velocity of the ship. Later, Steve will use trigonometry to calculate the true velocity. He also uses the Conductivity, Temperature, Depth (CTD) meter, lowered into the water at every station during the night. The CTD gives much more information than its name would suggest, including salinity, density, and oxygen. It is deployed with a high-speed camera and holds bottles to capture water samples. I was impressed by the amount of work – and math! – that Steve does in between cruises. When he has down time on this cruise, he told me, he is calculating work from two years ago.

Jennifer divides a sample in the Folsom plankton splitter

Jennifer divides a sample in the Folsom plankton splitter

Jennifer and Angie are studying plankton, the organisms at the very bottom of the food web. Immediately, I recognized euphausiids, or krill, from the contents of hake stomachs. Actually I recognized their small black eyes, which always reminded me of poppy seeds when I saw them in hake stomachs. Jennifer is conducting this work through her group Northwest Fisheries Science Center, which, as she describes it, gives her a wonderful freedom to research different projects related to ocean conditions, especially salmon returns. In this project, they measuring phytoplankton, tiny, photosynthetic organisms, by measuring chlorophyll and nutrients. They are also looking at zooplankton, like euphausiids, salps, and crab larvae, which we examined other the microscope. To help the acoustics team refine their ability to use sonar to identify zooplankton, Jennifer and Angie record certain species. The acoustics team will match up the acoustics data that is continuously generated on this ship with the samples.

Angie

Angie takes water samples from the CTD.

Today, the second catch of the day was aborted because of whales too close to the ship. However, the NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL), had asked the Shimada to investigate its waveglider. A waveglider is type of robot called an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). Programmed to travel and record data, it does not need an operator. The PMEL folks were concerned, however, that its AUV might have a problem.The bridge set the course for the AUV, described as a yellow surfboard, and I headed up to the flying deck, the highest deck and an ideal spot for observation, to watch for it. Immediately we saw a humpback whale, just starboard of the ship, spout and roll through the water, its tail raised in the air. Soon the AUV appeared. We saw nothing wrong with it but communicated our observations, photographs, and video tape of it to PMEL. The PMEL’s system of wavegliders monitor carbon dioxide levels and use the kinetic energy of ocean waves to recharge the batteries. The acoustics team hopes to get their own waveglider next year to collect acoustic data in between transects. As I was peering  over the edge of the boat, examining the surfboard-like robot below, I heard a loud splash. A bout ten  Dall’s porpoises were playing around the bow of our boat, rippling in and out of the water. Dall’s porpoises are tremendously playful creatures, and will often play around ships. But our ship was barely moving, and the porpoises soon lost interest and swam away.

Wave Glider

Wave Glider, seen from above

Personal Log

I’m getting a little of everything on this cruise. I would have stayed up two nights ago for the deploymentof the CTD and zooplankton samples, but the propeller developed a loud enough whamming sound to suspend all operations indefinitely. I woke up at 4:00 AM yesterday because the boat was swaying back and forth violently. (Violently by my standards, that is; more experienced mariners insist the swell is nothing.) Since our bunks go port to starboard, I could feel my weight sliding from hip to head to hip to head as I was rocked back and forth in bed. Meanwhile a discarded lightbulb in a metal shelf was rolling back and forth steadily – rattle-rattle-WACK! rattle-rattle-WACK! – until Shelby Herber, a student at Western University and my roommate, got up, found the culprit, and wrapped it in a shirt. When I woke again, it was eleven hours after the discovery of the problem with the prop and well past breakfast, and I started to get up until Shelby told me we were off transect, headed to shore because of the propeller.

Wave Glider

Wave Glider from beneath the water, taken from PMEL's website

So we took our time getting up. But when I finally arrived in the acoustics lab, Rebecca was running up the hall, saying, “Caitlin, I was looking for you! There’s a great big shark outside, and we’re pulling up the ROV!” The ROV is the remotely controlled vehicle, a robot like the AUV, but one that requires an operator to make it move. Unfortunately, out on the fish deck, the ROV was being put away and the shark gone off on his fishy business. To console me, John had the videotaped footage from the ROV and the dorsal fin of the shark, and showed me both. The ROV revealed no damage and I was invited down to the winch room, where the bang-bang-bang coming from the propeller was unnerving.

ROV

Puzzled birds approach the ROV

Everyone was in an uproar trying to decide what to do, an uproar made all the more dramatic by the steady lurching and swaying of the ship, which throughout the day has sent most of the scientists to their room for at least a few hours and most of the deck hands to tell stories of unhappy tourists who couldn’t find their sea legs. Finally, the engine guys decided the warped propeller would not prevent us from getting to Port Angeles, and Rebecca decided it would not interfere with the acoustics, and we got back on transect.

ROV

ROV

I’m getting a little bit of everything on this cruise. I’ve seen sharks and marines mammals, calm seas and rockier seas, an impressively well-functioning ship and a number of technological problems. I’ve interviewed scientists, NOAA Corps officers who command the ship, and crew members who recount endless adventures at sea. I’m even signed up for the cribbage tournament, which I’m not entirely thrilled about since I don’t know how to play bridge. I’ve been impressed by how much time and information everyone seems to have for me. I am constantly thinking how I can bring this experience back to my students. Some ideas are to have a science and math career day, collect weather data like the data the bridge collects, dissect hake, and examine zooplankton under a microscope. Various people on board have volunteered to help with all my ideas.