NOAA Teacher at Sea
NOAA Ship Oregon II
July 25– August 9, 2023
Mission: Shark/Red Snapper Bottom Longline Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico/Atlantic Ocean
Date: August 7, 2023
Air Temperature: 31° Celsius
Wind Speed: 12.01 knots
Navigating NOAA Ship Oregon II is at once one of the most important and complex tasks on board. It is in motion 24 hours a day and must have skilled individuals to keep the crew safe and accomplish the mission of the survey. I spoke with Commander Adam Reed, Acting Commanding Officer, and Lieutenant Commander Rachel Pryor, Executive Officer, about this task.
Oregon II operates on two engines with one propeller (prop). It has a controllable pitch prop. This means that the pitch of the blades can be changed in order to change speed or even reverse the direction of the ship. The rudder turns the ship to port or starboard. There are also bow thrusters that turn the bow one way or the other.
There are a variety of devices that the navigator uses to know where the ship is, and to stay on course. They have two different GPS devices, in case one goes out. Additionally, they have a magnetic compass as well as a gyrocompass.
There are two radar units to see where other ships are and to get detailed weather information. One unit is more precise than the other but may pick up rain storms which may interfere with spotting ships. The other unit will still work in that situation.
When navigating, it is important to not just maintain the correct heading but also monitor course over ground. Even though the ship is heading in the right direction it can be pulled off course by the water currents and winds. This is very important to keep in mind not only across long distances but also when approaching the high flyer to pick up the longline. They must approach at a 90° angle and then turn to follow the longline. This is a fairly precise maneuver that is affected by both wind and current.
One important factor affecting the operation of the ship is the weather. Careful consideration of any weather conditions must be factored into any decisions made. No one is allowed on the deck if there are winds of 25 knots or more, waves of 4-5 feet, or lightning within 25 miles. Weather information is always monitored through five different sources. Decisions must be made while consulting and comparing different sources of data.
Executive Officer Rachel Pryor explained that there are two types of weather patterns to keep in mind when considering operations. The first are small squalls, which can be fast moving and may have lightning. These squalls may keep moving in the same direction and you can calculate when they will arrive. But they can sometimes dissipate, change course, or stay where they are. There are also larger weather systems to consider. These tend to be slower moving but can have seas “kicking up,” increased wind speeds, and lightning. These may require seeking some sort of shelter or even docking at a port.
Weather has impacted the survey several times during this cruise. One of the most memorable was when I was working my shift and we were told to expect a long delay due to the weather. After about 30-45 minutes we were told to go ahead and bait the hooks and lay the longline. It takes about 2 ½ hours to run a station from putting the first hook in, to pulling the last one out of the water. The weather was beautiful and the seas were relatively calm during the station. Within a few minutes of finishing, the winds began to kick up as a system approached. In my estimation, these were pretty amazing calculations by Lieutenant Commander Pryor who was Officer of the Deck (OOD) for the haul.
The other incident to include here was a larger storm system that we were told on a Tuesday would arrive on Friday. Sure enough, it did. We headed in for cover near Cape Fear, NC. In this case, all fishing stopped and we sailed in an oval pattern keeping the waves to the bow or stern as much as possible. This led to a work stoppage of about 36 hours. In both cases careful calculations were made to keep the crew safe and maximize mission success.
Meet the Crew: Taniya Wallace, Fish Biologist
Taniya Wallace is a fish biologist contractor on the science team here on Oregon II. Taniya hails from Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where she grew up and still lives. Her mother is a teacher and her father works in naval ship design. Taniya credits her 6th grade teacher with first inspiring her interest in science. She says, “Science challenged my mind and made me wonder how things worked.”
After graduating high school, she got a summer internship at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory where she developed an interest in marine biology. Taniya attended Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, Mississippi. She played softball for her university and they won the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship three years in a row! At Mississippi Valley State, she earned a degree in biology with a minor in chemistry.
After college she was hired as a contractor during the Deepwater Horizon disaster working on small boats trawling for fish and crustaceans to gather samples for NOAA Fisheries Seafood Inspection program. This was a three month contract.
Next, she was contracted to work with NOAA for the Plankton Unit for the next four years. On the surveys, she worked with the team to collect plankton (microscopic organisms) in three different sized nets. Then, back in the lab, she sorted and identified decapods (crabs, lobster, shrimp) and red snapper.
In 2014, she moved to the trawl survey. In this survey, they pulled a large net behind the boat and caught a variety of marine animals. They sort, identify and record measurements on what they find on the boat. Back at the lab, they would identify unknown species. This included different kinds of fish as well as invertebrates. She explained to me that the science team uses only scientific names so, often, she may not know the common name of species she is cataloging.
Here on the shark and red snapper survey her computer and data entry skills are evident. She catalogs otoliths (ear bones) and other parts quickly and easily. I am not sure if patience, kindness and equanimity are requirements of her job but she, like the other members of the science crew, excels in these qualities. And, her shark handling skills are really impressive.
Personal Log: A very exciting haul!
Every day continues to be full of new experiences and animals. Yesterday, there was a haul which on paper would look pretty boring but it proved to be anything but. First, we brought up a royal sea star ( Astropecten articulatus), a beautiful hand sized star with cream colored feet, with orange edges filled by a deep purple band. I half expected Trey, our lead on the science team, to claim it for Clemson. (Go tigers! Or, is that LSU? Yes, there is a school rivalry playing out among the science team.)
Hook number 33 had a feisty seven foot nurse shark. The next shark, a nearly seven foot sandbar shark, was on hook number 43.
Hook number 49 had a baby tiger shark that was being pursued by a great hammerhead. The hammerhead was closing in on its prey when the gangion tightened and the tiger shark was hauled out of the water. I cannot say what was in the hammerhead’s brain, but it was certainly animated. For the next few minutes, it searched in vain for the tiger shark, circling and making several passes on the starboard side of the ship and showing its dorsal fin.
Confusion? Anger? We can only speculate but I can imagine how strange the situation was from the hammerhead’s point of view. “Just another second and then, yum. Wait… where did it go?” I know this is purely unscientific and I am anthropomorphising (giving human characteristics to animals) but it really was a sight to witness.
Later on that same haul, we hooked into a large tiger shark. It is not unusual to see a shark sucker or cobia, maybe two, hanging out around the shark as we bring it in. We have even caught a shark sucker on a hook. But this tiger had at least 10 cobia following it in.
She broke the line, and we were not able to measure and tag her. In this haul, only one fish was landed, but each of those events excited all involved and will be remembered and shared long into the future.
Animals seen: Shark sucker, royal sea star, brittle star, sea fan, nurse shark, cobia, royal tern
Did you know? Sometimes hammerhead sharks swim on their sides.