Julia West: Putting It All Together, April 3, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date:  April 3, 2015

In case you’re wondering if you got the math right, here’s the answer to the volume of water that flowed through the each bongo net (3/29 post): 282.88 cubic meters. Your answer might vary slightly if you rounded off to fewer decimal places.

The answer to the math problem of 4/1: you can see 162.86 square nautical miles from the bridge. That’s a big area!

Coming into Port

As I finish writing this blog, I am still on the Gunter, in port. We got in this morning, and spent a few hours unloading. All of the science gear had to come off the ship. The next plankton cruise will not be on the Gunter, as she is headed north in a couple of weeks, up the east coast to New England, where she will be employed on a marine mammal research cruise. The Gunter will be in almost continuous use until late summer; that’s the next time the crew will get a break.

Breaking everything down was interesting. Both cranes were employed, and we carried a lot of things as well. Here are some photos of our arrival and unloading (click on one to get a slide show):

When we went back to the NOAA lab to unload our gear, I got another tour of the lab, and the sorting work that is being done there. One of the main projects going on now is a project for NRDA (Natural Resources Damage Assessment) project. NRDA is a department of NOAA. This project started after the BP oil spill in 2010 to study the effects of the spill on aquatic organisms, using SEAMAP data. The samples they are analyzing are from 2010 and 2011.

Jessica Kirkham sorting the icthyoplankton (fish) from the invertebrates

Not only do they separate the plankton, but they are very good at identifying them! This is Jennifer McDonald.

I got to see some cool fish eggs and larvae from the NRDA samples, and saw some enlarged pictures from the microscope projected onto a monitor. However, I am not allowed to share them with you on this blog because of the upcoming litigation with the BP case. None of the NRDA data, photos, or anything are allowed to be shared until the court case is all over. I ventured that once it is over, there must be a lot of researchers waiting to get hold of the data, and was told that they are lining up! So if you are interested in marine science, there are definitely some research opportunities for you in the future!

Odds and Ends about the Ship

I wanted to describe a couple more interesting tidbits. I didn’t get to know the engineers, and wasn’t able to get a tour of the engine room, but I still want to thank them for getting us where we needed to go! The Gunter is a diesel electric ship. There are four generators (plus a backup) that create electricity to turn the two propellers. Usually, we are using three of them. They also generate our electricity. Not only that, but the waste heat from the generators is used to distill salt water to make fresh water. There is a brominator that is used to help purify the water, along with some chlorine I believe – neither of which I could detect in the water. There are regular tests for bromine and chlorine in the water. The salt goes out with the outflow, back into the ocean.

And where does human waste go on a ship? Surely you must be wondering! If we are at least 12 miles from shore, it is discharged into the ocean, after being treated in some way (no chemicals). Food waste is thrown overboard, if we are at least 12 miles from shore. All food waste that is thrown over is measured and recorded (by the gallon). There are rules like this for organic wastes and other types of waste, specifying how far from shore they can be released. These rules clearly state that nowhere in any ocean is plastic allowed to be dumped. The ocean has enough plastic already, thanks to us.

Our Scientists

I want to thank the wonderful science team on this trip, for patiently teaching me the ropes and putting up with my unlimited questions. It is because of their knowledge that I was able to share the science work that we are doing. Likewise, thanks to the NOAA Corps officers who welcomed me and my questions on the bridge. And Jerome and the deck crew as well.

Here’s a little bit about our scientists.

There are the scientist on our cruise. From L to R: Kim Johnson, Madalyn Meaker, Chrissy Stepongzi, Andy Millett, Pam Bond (FPC), and me! Photo by LT Marc Weekley

Madalyn is a native to Mississippi. She got a degree in marine science at the University of Southern Mississippi, and started working with plankton with the Gulf Coast Research Lab (GCRL), a facility with USM. Since December, she has worked in the plankton lab at NOAA, on the NRDA project described above. If she hadn’t just gotten off the ship after working 17 days straight, she would have been at one of the microscopes in the lab when I walked through. Madalyn lives in Gulfport, MS.

Chrissy also started in the same NRDA project, but is now working with the “trawl unit.” (I’ll explain that next.) During her 5 years with NOAA, she also worked for another department, the National Seafood Inspection Laboratory. Her project there also started after the BP oil spill; it involved checking samples of fish for oil contamination. They did this in a curious way: specialized “sniffers” (these are humans) with sensitive noses were hired to detect contamination in the samples! Anyway, Chrissy is from Louisiana, and has a biology degree from Louisiana State University. She’s going to be on several research cruises this year, working with Kim. Her favorite baby fish? Istiophorids (marlins), of course – “They are so cute! Look at those big eyes!”

Istiophorid (blue marlin) larvae, A. 12.6 mm, B. 21.0 mm, C. 22.1 mm Strasburg (1970), Gehringer (1956), and Bartlett et al. (1968) in Development of Fishes of the Mid-Atlantic Bight – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Andy comes from Massachusetts, but now lives here in Ocean Springs, MS, with his wife. He has worked in the plankton unit for five years now, having started in plankton in college. (My question to everyone was, “So how long have you been in plankton?”) Andy has a BS in marine biology, and a MS in marine science. For his graduate work, he used SEAMAP data from the CUFES samples, studying community structure of invertebrates throughout the Gulf, and how they are affected by abiotic factors (such as temperature and salinity). This was interesting to me, because there is so much data available, and many options to analyze that data in new ways. Science doesn’t always mean you need to collect your own data! (See my note about the NRDA data above.) So now Andy specializes in invertebrate data analysis, using the data we collect. He is the FPC (Field Party Chief) for the spring and fall plankton research cruises this year. He and Pam take turns with that role.

Kim comes from Texas, and started with NOAA in 2001. She got a degree in marine fisheries, and through NOAA, was able to get her masters just a few years ago. NOAA offers nice opportunities for continuing education. Kim’s main focus is the juvenile fish – the size up from what we are working with here. They do summer groundfish surveys, which involve trawling. They catch things like commercial shrimp (that go down to the bottom at night), as well as snappers that hang out at the bottom. Kim will also be very busy at sea this year, and somehow even finds time for her husband and four young children!

Pam, our humble, kind, and intrepid leader, grew up in the Midwest, and has been “in plankton” for 23 years now! She started as a volunteer at GCRL, got hired, and spent 7 years working there before joining NOAA in 1999. I should clarify that GCRL, and several other facilities, are all part of SEAMAP, which is a cooperative project. Pam has been an FPC since 2001, as she puts it, “since the days of DOS and data sheets.” Can you imagine manually entering all your data into the computer data base?! She lives with two cats and her husband, also a federal employee with the USDA chemistry lab, in Wiggins, MS.

(Update on 4/3) – After I arrived too late at the airport this morning and missed my flight out, Pam felt so bad that she took me out to lunch and gave me a tour of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath along the coast. She was worried that I would say bad things about her on the blog post, but I still have nothing but good things to say, Pam, if you are reading this! You are awesome!

The Big Picture

I learned a bit about how all this goes together. We have the plankton surveys, which you know about. We have the groundfish surveys, which are done by trawling (dragging a net over the bottom). That catches the juveniles, but the adults tend to outswim the net.

Deploying the net in the groundfish survey. Photo credit: SEFSC/NOAA

A full net! Photo credit: SEFSC/NOAA

You can get some strange creatures in the ocean depths! Photo credit: Kim Johnson/NOAA

So then we have the longline surveys to catch the adult (pelagic) fish. In a sense, we are using the same techniques commercial fishermen do, in order to study the health of the species throughout the stages of development.

When plankton research started, it was all about learning as much as possible about individual species. Now (and if you check out the NOAA FishWatch website you will understand this better), all of the data becomes important. We know that for a successful fishery, we need a healthy and diverse ecosystem. The information about non-economically important species is crucial to understanding the entire community, as well as the information about abiotic (physical) factors such as the CTD provides. I find this focus encouraging; I feel we are learning something as we try to “manage” these incredible resources. The more we understand the big picture, the more we can take care of our precious Earth.

I could get all philosophical and talk about the importance of a broad education and a global awareness in the same light, but I’ll spare you. I’ll just say that it’s really important to put together the little pieces to form the whole puzzle. It’s not that we all need to know everything. Our data collecting scientists here have their important job, but they have informed me that they don’t know all about how the results of their work have changed fishing regulations. Others down the line have their job, and they don’t know the details of how the samples are collected. However, they all have a sense of their purpose – a sense of the whole picture – even though they don’t need to know everything. Even though the deck crew and the officers who drive the ship don’t know much about plankton, but they are aware of our general purpose, and know they have a crucial part in it. It reminds me of the janitor at NASA who, when asked “what do you do for a living?” answered “I put people on the moon.”

Would I do this again? Absolutely! I learned so much! Important things like why NOAA only allows shoes with closed toes on their ships (I would have stubbed my toes a thousand times!). I learned that flying fish and mano’wars are some of the most bizarre creatures at the surface of the ocean. I learned that I’m still not so sure about the seasickness thing. There were days that were spent in a very sleepy, off-feeling mode. I need more research on that! I learned that there’s a lot going on out on our oceans that we are unaware of, like why was that oil rig that we passed the other night on fire, and has anybody reported it? And I learned that there is so very, very much more to learn. Our world is so fascinating! Never stop wondering. Thanks for following along!

Sunset from the Gordon Gunter

4 responses to “Julia West: Putting It All Together, April 3, 2015”

1. Jamie M. (Oak Meadow Student) says:

Hi Julia,
I’m glad you had a good time on the research cruise! It sounds like it was an amazing experience! The fish in the picture near the end of the post looks so interesting – do you know what kind it is? The picture of the sunset from the boat is amazing!

2. jwest425 says:

Hi Jamie, No, I asked what that fish was and they didn’t know. Something that lives very deep! Maybe we can find out. Yeah, that’s a cool picture, taken from next to the bridge. I like the way the name of the ship is in it.

3. jwest425 says:

Thanks Tony! I was wondering about that – it looked like there was a middle column and then the fire spread out both ways sideways. Somebody has a picture – I think Kristen, or maybe Melissa, but that wasn’t her watch, so probably Kristen. You should ask them. Thank you sooooo much for helping me and being an enthusiastic follower of the blog, and explainer of details, many of which went way over my head but it was still fun. You were my best supporter. I know the Gunter is headed out again now, so all the best to you as you head north – I’ll be following it as best I can without ship tracker! I know there are some more teachers getting on board this year. Did Pam tell you I missed my plane? Just to keep things exciting right up til the end…