Meg Stewart: What’s it Like to Work on a NOAA Ship? July 18, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Meg Stewart

Aboard NOAA Ship Fairweather

July 8 – 19, 2019


Mission: Cape Newenham Hydrographic Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Bering Sea, Alaska

Date: July 18, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 54° 09.9 N
Longitude: 161° 46.3 W
Wind: 22 knots NW
Barometer: 1014.2 mb
Visibility: 10 nautical miles
Temperature: 55.6° F or 13.1° C
Weather: Partly cloudy, no precipitation


Careers at Sea Log, or Meet the ….

Life at sea on the Ship Fairweather, this past week and a half, with some 42  crew members, has been something I have never experienced. The closest thing that I can think of was when I was in undergraduate geology field camp, living in close quarters for weeks on end, with the same people, working together towards a goal. But I knew all of those field camp students; we were in college together. This is different. Everyone works here on the Fairweather and this is their job and their home. We’re all adults and no one knows anyone when they first come aboard. So, if you are friendly, open to people and welcoming, you can get to know some folks quickly. If you’re shy or try to ease in slowly, it may be a harder adjustment, living on a 231-foot heaving, rolling, pitching and yawing, ice-strengthened, welded steel hydrographic survey vessel. It’s a unique environment. And there are a lot of different but interesting jobs that people do here on the Fairweather. Here are but a few of the mariners on the ship.

NOAA Corps – The first group of ship crew that I’ll talk about are NOAA Corps officers.  NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps (or NOAA Corps) is one of the nation’s seven uniformed services and they are an integral part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA Corps support nearly all of NOAA’s programs and missions.

XO Sam Greenaway
XO Sam Greenaway, the Executive Officer on NOAA Ship Fairweather

Commander Greenaway is the Executive Officer onboard Fairweather and that work entails a variety of tasks that all function under the heading “administering the ships business.” Greenaway’s number one job is as the ship’s Safety Officer and he has additional tasks that include purchase requests from the departments, lining up contractors, making sure everyone has their training up-to-date, handling human resource issues, and accounting of the ship’s finances. On the Fairweather, Greenaway is second in command. He loves being at sea and has always liked sailing, which is one of his hobbies when not on the ship. What Greenaway least expected to be doing as a NOAA Corps officer was managing people but he finds that he loves that part of the job. Greenaway has a bachelors of science degree in Physics from Brown University and a masters degree in Ocean Engineering from University in New Hampshire. 

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ENS Jeffery Calderon, Junior Officer
ENS Jeffery Calderon, Junior Officer

Ensign Jeffrey Calderon is a NOAA Corps Junior Officer and has been on Ship Fairweather for two years. Calderon was previously with the Air Force for eight years and also with the National Guard for about four years. His duties on the ship include driving small boats, doing hydrographic surveys, bridge duty on the ship, and he’s the medical officer on board. Calderon enjoys the challenges he gets with NOAA Corps and likes to manage small teams and decide priorities. He learned about NOAA Corps from his college advisor at the University of Maryland, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics.

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ENS Iris Ekmanis, Junior Officer
ENS Iris Ekmanis, Junior Officer

Ensign Iris Ekmanis is also a Junior Officer who recently completed her basic training for the NOAA Corps. She has been on Ship Fairweather for about a month and a half. She chose NOAA Corps because she wanted to utilize her degree in Marine Science (from University of Hawaii, Hilo) and had worked on boats for six years. She likes that she has been learning new things everyday, like how to pilot the ship from the bridge, learning to coxswain a launch, and learning to use the hydrographic software to collect bathymetric data. In fact, when we left the dock in Dutch Harbor at the beginning of the leg, Ekmanis had the conn, which means she maneuvered the ship through her orders to the helm (although she had plenty of people around her in case she needed assistance.)

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Survey team – The hydrographic survey team is involved in all aspects of collecting the data and generating the bathymetric surfaces that will be used to make updated nautical charts. They don’t drive the boats and ships, they run the software, take the casts that determine water salinity and temperature, tell the coxswain where to motor to next and then process the data back on Ship Fairweather.  There are six members on the survey team; here are two of them.

Ali Johnson
Ali Johnson, Hydrographic Senior Survey Technician

Ali Johnson has been a hydrographer on the Ship Fairweather for two and a half years. She told me she always knew she wanted to work in ocean science in some capacity so she earned a degree in Environmental Studies at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.  With this job, Johnson enjoys going to places that most people don’t ever get to see and one of the highlights was surveying while dodging icebergs and seeing the interesting bathymetry as a result of glacial deposits, another was seeing an advancing glacier up close. She is the hydrographer who showed me most of the ropes on the ship, the launch surveys and in the plot room.

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Michelle Wiegert
Michelle Wiegert, Hydrographic Assistant Survey Technician

Michelle Wiegert has been with NOAA Ship Fairweather since last September. Although she did not lay eyes on the ocean until she was nineteen, she always knew she would do some ocean-based work.  Wiegert earned a double major in Biology and Spanish from Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado and studied Applied Science Marine Technology at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, NC. As a Survey team member, she loves that she is working at sea and the fact that every day is different and she is always learning new things.

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Ship Stewards – The stewards are the crew members who make the three square meals a day. The food on Ship Fairweather has been outstanding and every meal seems like two or even three meals in one because the stewards offer so much variety, including vegetarian and vegan options.  There are four stewards on the Fairweather and they are all as nice as can be. Here is one of them.

Carrie Mortell, Acting Chief Cook
Carrie Mortell, Acting Chief Cook

Carrie Mortell has been a steward with the Fairweather for two years and with NOAA for fifteen. She has ten years of commercial fisheries experience in southeast Alaska and she loves the ocean. Mortell told me she feels more comfortable at sea than on land. She likes to keep busy in her downtime by reading, writing letters, crocheting, cooking & baking and drawing.

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Deck Department – The Fairweather’s Deck Department takes care of general ship maintenance, cleaning decks, painting, operating cranes, helming the ship, and coxswaining the launches. There are currently eight members of the Deck Department and I interviewed one for this post.

Eric Chandler, Able Seaman
Eric Chandler, Able Seaman

Eric Chandler has been an Able Seaman with NOAA for one and a half years. He has driven the launches, taught coxswains-in-training, been a ship medic, moved launches with a davit, repaired jammed grab samplers, and many other tasks. Chandler started working on boats in 2016 when he was a deckhand, educator and naturalist on tour boats out of Seward, AK.  He has also been a professional photographer and an auto mechanic. Chandler likes being on a ship because he sees remote places, gets to learn new skills all the time, and likes the feeling of being self-sufficient.

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Visitors to NOAA Ship Fairweather – I am a visitor to Ship Fairweather but I am not the only temporary person onboard. Here are two of the four of us who are “just passing through.”

Fernando Ortiz
Fernando Ortiz, Physical Scientist at NOAA

Fernando Ortiz has been a Physical Scientist with NOAA since 2008 and works out of Western Regional Center in Seattle, WA. He was visiting the Fairweather on the same leg is mine. NOAA Physical Scientists normally work in the office but will go on a NOAA ship at least once a year to support field operations. Ortiz will possibly do the quality control check on the data for the Cape Newenham project in the future. Ortiz has a bachelor’s degree in Geography from the University of Washington, Seattle WA. His advice for people looking for a similar career is to take science classes and he emphasized having Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and programming experience.

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Christine Burns, Knauss Fellow
Christine Burns, Knauss Fellow through NOAA Sea Grant

Christine Burns is visiting from Washington, DC, where she is a Knauss Fellow through NOAA Sea Grant. She is on a one-year post-graduate marine policy fellowship with NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey.  She wanted to see what the hydrographic research going on so came out to Dutch Harbor as part of her fellowship. Burns has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science from Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, and a masters in Marine Science from the University of Georgia in Savannah, GA. As she was visiting like I was and we were both very much observers, Burns filled me in on some scholarship and internship ideas she has for high school students and those students thinking of careers and college after high school graduation. By the way, once you’re nearing the end of college or have graduated already, don’t forget that there is usually career advisory office and your alumni network at your institution. You can make connections, seek advice, ask about positions, among other important functions those offices and groups do for you.
Hollings Scholars – for current college sophomores, this is an undergraduate scholarship and internship through NOAA
EPP/MSI Undergraduate Scholarship Program – this is the Hollings Scholarship for students attending HBCU or Minority Serving Institutions
Student Conservation Association – a good place to get work and volunteer experiences or a gap year opportunity, for people 18-35 interested in land management.
Youth Conservation Corps – a summer youth employment program that engages young people in meaningful work experiences on national parks, forests, and so on.
USAJobs – this link has summer internships for college students or recent graduates.
Rotary Clubs can help students find scholarships and volunteer opportunities
Unions – you can find paid internships or educational opportunities through unions for skills such as pipefitters, electrical, plumbing, etc.

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Next post: the Engineering Department of the Ship Fairweather

Personal Log

I am impressed and awed by the people who have chosen living and working on a ship. When I first came aboard the Fairweather, I felt everything was a little cramped and the space was confined. I couldn’t figure out how to get around very well. Now, I don’t get lost as often. It isn’t easy to live and work on a ship, but there are plenty of folks on the Fairweather who happily chose it.

Meg on flying bridge
On the flying bridge near Cape Newenham

I’ve enjoyed looking out at sea as we are underway. I try to spot whales and other flying and leaping sea critters. We have one more long transit before arriving back to Dutch Harbor so I am going to head up to the flying bridge and see what I can see.

Did You Know?

The Fairweather makes its own potable water. When I was shown the engine room, I was also shown the reverse osmosis water making machine that turns sea water into fresh water. The ship never runs out!

Quote of the Day

“It is not that life ashore is distasteful to me. But life at sea is better.” – Sir Francis Drake

Alex Miller, Riding by the River, June 8, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Alexandra (Alex) Miller, Chicago, IL
Onboard NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada
May 27 – June 10, 2015

IMG_9074

Pyrotechnics training

Mission: Rockfish Recruitment and Ecosystem Assessment
Geographical area of cruise: Pacific Coast
Date: Monday, June 8th, 2015

Weather Data:

  • Air Temperature: 12.0°C
  • Water Temperature: 14.0°C
  • Sky Conditions: Overcast
  • Wind Speed (knots/kts) and Direction: 20 kts, NNW
  • Latitude and Longitude: 46°29’98”, 124°59’93”

Yesterday, I spoke with two of the NOAA Corps officers, Ensign Nikki Norton and Commander Brian Parker. Ensign Norton is in her first post as a NOAA Corps officer and Commander Parker has been in the Corps for 21 years. The NOAA Corps’ main responsibility is to oversee all operations of NOAA research vessels and aircraft. In addition to positioning the ship for deployment and hauling back of the various nets and instruments, they help chart the course to make sure that we visit all the transect stations. In fact, we missed an operation at one of the stations, so they are going to do a slight reroute so that we can make up for that lost data point!

Ensign Nikki Norton wore many hats and had many responsibilities during our time at sea. Including serving as the OOD, Officer on Deck, essentially an extension of the CO while on watch in the bridge, she oversaw safety operations and was the medical officer. Interestingly, she holds a Bachelor’s in marine biology from Florida State University, which makes her well suited for overseeing the operations of a research vessel.

You can listen to my conversation with Ensign Nikki Norton below.

 

This morning, I visited the bridge and spoke with the Commanding Officer of the Shimada, Commander Brian Parker. Commander Parker has been a NOAA Corps officer for 21 years, working his way up from ensign to XO (Executive Officer) to CO. NOAA Corps officers work alternating sea and land posts for two-years at a time, and at the end of this year, Commander Parker’s sea post will end and his land post as Port Captain of the NOAA facility in Newport will begin.

You can listen to my conversation with Commander Parker below.

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We arrived to our second to last transect, the Columbia River line, on Sunday. The Columbia River acts as an important source of food and habitat for certain marine species that the scientists on board the Shimada are studying and they anticipated interesting changes in the physical and biological data that they would collect at these stations.

IMG_8578

The long blue shelf-like line (labeled CR plume in top graph) shows decrease in salinity.

As I’ve mentioned before, the CTD measures temperature, salinity and chlorophyll (a measure of how much plant material is in the water), which are collectively referred to as physical oceanographic data. Dr. Curtis Roegner tracks the data acquired throughout the day at each station by printing the CTD graphs and taping them onto the cabinets of the Chem Lab, creating a visualization of the measurements. He looks for patterns in the data that may help him to better understand the samples acquired from neuston towing. In the graphs, you can see a dramatic change in salinity in the first 10 – 20 m as the ship passes through the fan of fresher water created by the emptying of the Columbia River into the Pacific Ocean. This area, called a plume, is the meeting of two bodies of water so different that you can see a front, a clear border between the salty water of the ocean and the fresh water of the river.

The chem lab, wallpapered with CTD graphs.

The chem lab, wallpapered with CTD graphs.

As a fisheries biologist, Curtis Roegner has several driving questions that guide the work he does on board the Shimada and back at the NOAA Center. Among the work he does, he aims to study how well certain projects in the Columbia River are working to restore salmon populations. Certain species rely on the wetlands of the river to spawn (produce young) and mature in and some of this habitat has been lost to the development of cattle grazing lands. Studying the impact of the Columbia River plume on the Oregon coast may help affect change in environmental policy and agricultural (farming) practices.

I interviewed Curtis about his work and you can hear that talk below.

 

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Rougher weather kicked up a lot of swells, which the mighty Shimada crashed right through, sending spray all over the decks and outer stairways and producing just enough pitching and yawing to make a walk through a hallway interesting. The Shimada’s size helps keep the rocking and rolling to a relative minimum, but when at sea safety always remains a major concern.

With that in mind, today I participated in an optional pyrotechnic training with some officers, crew and members of the science team. Several different types of flares and smoke bombs are used at sea to draw attention to a ship in need.

In order to avoid a “crying-wolf” type of situation, we practiced this during the day and most likely radioed to all nearby vessels that we were in fact training and not in need of rescue. While I probably won’t be applying this skill in the near future, I decided I couldn’t miss an opportunity to try something new. Above you can see photos of different members of the crew and science team using these tools and below, you can see a video of me operating a flare gun.

 

Lucky for me, we weren’t in an actual danger situation. At the end of the clip, I turn to NOAA Corps officer LT Tim Sinquefield for assistance. After some adjustment of the flare shell, you can see me successfully operating the flare gun below.

 

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To top off an even more unlikely morning, members of the night shift and I were watching the sun come up and helping Amanda with the bird and marine mammal observations when a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins came to play off the bow of the ship. They stayed astern (toward the back of the ship) throughout the pyrothechnic training and at times, felt close enough to reach out and touch.

Pacific white-sided dolphins   ride the waves near our port stern, seemingly for the sheer joy of it.

Pacific white-sided dolphins ride the waves near our port stern, seemingly for the sheer joy of it.

Personal Log

As June 10 looms ever closer, I am frantically trying to take everything in. I’m basically operating under the mentality that I can sleep when I’m home. The more I try and experience, the less time I have to document what it is I’m learning on board the ship. But I set out to write eight posts about my time as a Teacher at Sea and I’m going to stay true to that commitment. Stay tuned for the final episode of my cruise aboard the Shimada, coming soon.

Yaara Crane: Scientific Careers, July 1, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Yaara Crane
Aboard NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson
June 22 — July 3, 2013

TJ Chiefs

The people in charge of the TJ. From left to right: XO, Chief Steward, Chief Engineer, CO, and Chief Boatswain (front).

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Mid-Atlantic
Date: Monday, July 1, 2013

Latitude: 38.81°N
Longitude: 75.05°W 

Weather Data from Bridge:
Wind Speed:  21.77knots
Surface Water Temperature: 22.16°C
Air Temperature:  22.80°C
Relative Humidity: 98.00%
Barometric Pressure: 1012.61mb 

Scientific Careers Log

During my time aboard the Thomas Jefferson, I have heard dozens of personal stories from individuals that come from all walks of life. I spent the past few days sitting down with a variety of these people to interview them about how they ended up a critical part of this ship. The following is just a short summary of my long conversations with each of these people. I found so much to write about, that today’s log will be about scientific careers, and tomorrow’s will focus on the non-scientific careers.

Of course, I had to begin my interviews with the man in charge: Commander Lawrence Krepp. CDR Krepp has been a NOAA Corps officer for over 20 years, and CO of the TJ since April of 2011. He particularly enjoys working on hydrographic ships, because they are the only ones in the fleet in which the CO is also the Chief Scientist. His background includes a degree in marine biology and work with the National Undersea Research Center.  In addition to saving him from a meeting each day, the major perk to being Chief Scientist is that he is able to work much more closely with the FOO to accomplish the objectives of the science party while maintaining supervision of all of the ship’s operations. CDR Krepp is able to spend his mornings walking around the ship and checking in on the bridge, then the rest of his day is spent immersed in reviewing survey work and other administrative duties.

QOD from CO

The CO puts a nautical trivia question in the night orders for his officers. He then checks their answers the next day.

On a more personal level, the CO mentioned that he wished he had more time to really work with the officers on their skills. CDR Krepp mentioned that he minored in education when he was in college, so it seems a little bit of the teacher still remains. Turnover on ships is very high because officers alternate every 2-3 years between sea and land assignments, therefore he will try to improve knowledge around the ship through spontaneous questioning on various scenarios that could occur. However, he always keeps an eye on the ship’s navigation systems to make sure the ship is safe and secure. If there was one aspect of his ship that the CO could change, it would be to improve the environmental treatment of the various waste streams on the TJ. An independent energy audit of the Thomas Jefferson was conducted in 2010, and CDR Krepp hopes to make improvements to the ship during his tenure as CO. Finally, the CO will do various things around the ship to help boost morale. The people that work on the ship give up a lot of personal freedoms, especially time with family, so the CO participates in some of the team-building around the ship. For example, he consented to have his hair cut by the winner of a ship-wide raffle. Proceeds from the raffle go directly back to planning events that can happen when at a port of call, such as going to a baseball game. Thanks for the interview, Captain!

Next in line was Lieutenant Commander Christiaan van Westendorp, otherwise known as the XO. The XO actually earned the rank of Lieutenant during his six years as a Navy Officer, a portion of which was spent on a nuclear-powered Navy submarine. Navy command structures do not generally transfer directly over to the NOAA Corps, so the XO had to spend nearly an additional year as an Ensign before being given his Lieutenant rank with NOAA. He spent two years as a FOO, and then was hired as XO of the NOAA Ship Ferdinand R. Hassler before coming to the TJ in November of 2012. LCDR van Westendorp will be on the TJ until the end of 2014, be given a land assignment for a few years, and then will most likely go to his final sea assignment as the CO and/or Chief Scientist of a NOAA ship. The XO is quick to point out that his career path is atypical of most NOAA officers, and he has been fortunate to be able to spend almost his entire NOAA career based out of Norfolk.

The XO is the main administrator, safety officer, and human resources officer on the ship, among other duties. These tasks involve a lot of paperwork, but also a lot of personal skills to work with any conflicts that might arise on the ship. His favorite part of his job is walking around the ship to keep in touch with everyone, and finding new challenges to tackle every day. LCDR van Westendorp echoes the opinion of many of the people I interviewed who just can’t get enough of the dynamism of life aboard a ship. Another aspect of the dynamism of the job is the exciting locales in which he has served. Since joining NOAA in September of 2005, the XO has had the opportunity to work in exotic locations such as Belize, Barbados, Suriname, Tahiti, and Hawaii. Thanks for the interview, XO!

ship store

I just bought a T-shirt from the ship store. Ensign Steve is in charge of keeping the store stocked and organized.

Working my way down the NOAA Corps Officers brought me to the second-newest officer on board, Ensign Steve Moulton. Ensign Moulton spent nine years in the Coast Guard, and has had to start over working his way up in the NOAA ranks. Right now, he feels that he is in a very heavy learning period of his career. Although he majored in an environmental field in college, he still had to attend hydrography school to learn the complex software and details of the ship’s work. Additionally, he is learning his way around a lot of collateral duties such as being the morale officer, the navigation officer, and running the ship store. Together with 8 hours of watch and processing hydrographic data, he is kept incredibly busy.

The major lesson that Ensign Moulton has internalized is to learn from your mistakes. Conditions on a ship, particularly while on the helm, change very quickly. He feels supported to spend time improving his skills, and has learned that any corrections from senior officers should only come once! Even so, Ensign Moulton enjoys the camaraderie of the ship, and being fortunate enough to spend his career on the water. He grew up in Rhode Island, and feels very connected to life at sea. Thanks for the interview, Ensign!

PS - James

James and I are looking at side scan data. He is pointing at a contact that may be a wreck.

My final scientist interview actually spends very little of his time at sea. James Miller, Physical Scientist, spends about 6-10 weeks on various East Coast NOAA ships throughout the year. He has worked for NOAA for three years, and is based out of NOAA’s Norfolk office. James joins the TJ and the Hassler for short periods to augment their scientific work and support the survey department. James normally spends his time on shore conducting quality assurance on the surveys that come directly from NOAA’s fleet of hydro ships and hydrographic contractors. He will compile these surveys into preliminary charts that will eventually be sent off to cartographers. James has picked up the knowledge for this career through his degree in Geology, an internship with NOAA arranged through Earth Resources Technology, and on-the-job training.

Although most of James’s job occurs behind a desk, he has had the opportunity to participate in a few more exciting NOAA ventures. For example, during the Deepwater Horizon crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, James was tapped to augment on the Gordon Gunter. He has also been asked to augment on assignments to reopen major ports after large storms and hurricanes. These opportunities generally come following emergencies, so James may be asked to report to a ship with only 24 hours’ notice. Finally, as others have said, James’ favorite part of working for NOAA is the dynamism of the field. James feels that he is in a steady learning process as the field of hydrography continues to improve in technological capabilities and scientific methods. Thanks for the interview, James!

Personal Log

It is getting to that time where we will be headed to Norfolk soon. I have been growing steadily accustomed to life at sea, and am excited to share everything that I have learned. I think the major lesson I have taken from this experience is one of creativity. If you don’t look past what you have learned, you may never know what other opportunities exist. As a teacher, I also agree with the idea of dynamism being a huge motivation in a career. Every morning that I wake up, I have new lessons to teach and challenges to address. I hope to keep that perspective and sense of adventure when I return to my classroom in the fall.

Did You Know?

The nautical charts created by NOAA are available in digital format for free public use. Hydrographic data is collected by NOAA ships, as well as with the cooperation of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Geological Survey.