Paul Ritter: Sixteen Days… July 31, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Paul Ritter
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 16– August 1, 2013 

pisces team picture

Pisces team picture

Mission: Southeast Fishery-Independent Survey (SEFIS)
Geographical area of cruise: southeastern US Atlantic Ocean waters (continental shelf and shelf-break waters ranging from Cape Hatteras, NC to Port St. Lucie, FL)
Date: July 31, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge

8-01-13 ship data

Science, personal, Technology Log

Date: Wednesday July 31, 2013
One day before we leave but you would not know it on the ship.  We are business as usual.  Our team is somewhere off of the coast of Cape Canaveral, and we have three sets of traps to set before we can call it a day.  With NASA’s Cape Canaveral Space Center in the background, we began laying traps in a zigzag pattern over the top of an underwater rock formation that the acoustics lab found the night before.

Our day’s catch was much better than in days past due to the fact that we he had moved much closer to shore.  For some reason our leg of the expedition experienced an unusual upwelling of cold water upon the continental shelf where we were exploring.  Our temperatures for most of the trip ranged from 14 to 16 degrees Celsius. Once we traveled closer to shore our temperatures went up to around 19 degrees Celsius.  This change in location meant that the water on the ocean floor was warmer and warmer water means more reef fish that are hungry.  FISH ON.

Notably, something that stands out in my mind that has made the entire trip successful is the camaraderie of the acoustics, and the wet /dry lab teams.  You would not know by looking, that many of them had never met prior to this trip.  Arguably, these people are the best of the best in the marine biology industry, and none of them have egos. They are so fun to be around.  They are very much a family.  Every time someone enters either lab, a round of “HEY’S” is shouted out by the entire group, as if we had not seen each other in years.   It reminds me of the old television show Cheers, when Norm would walk in to the bar and everyone would yell his name “NORM”.  I loved that show.  Anyway, I would give almost anything to work, side by side, with these people the rest of my life.  I imagine that this group of scientist is exactly what all other researchers aspire to have.

At the end of the day, trap six, the last trap, was pulled and we finished with a haul of good ol’ Black Sea Bass.  You got to love it.  The time was 3:45 and it was time to pack it up and clean the labs.  As a team, we boxed all of the equipment up, we scrubbed everything from top to bottom, and did it with the same enthusiasm we had had the entire trip.  We got the word from James Walker, Chief Bosun on the Pisces, to get all of our gear ready to be put into cargo nets ASAP.  He informed us that we were scheduled to arrive at Mayport Naval Station for a 7:00 A.M. dock time.  It did not take long for all of us to amass the gear and ready it all for transport.

At some point after supper, which was crab legs, and rib eye steaks, Ryan Harris, the skilled fisherman, and I were walking the deck and realized that we were about to get wet from a storm.  Thinking quickly, we moved all of the non-waterproof materials inside the wet lab.  I told Ryan I would see him in the morning and headed to my stateroom.  For some reason I could not get to sleep.  I was exhausted but just could not shutdown.  Zach, my roommate, and I talked about going home and all of the things we were going to do when we got there, for around an hour and then called it a day.

The Pisces steamed through the night and we were right on time.  Grabbing a cup of coffee, I raced out to the ships observation deck so I could watch us come into the dock.  It was amazing.  The crew and the bridge worked flawlessly together to bring our ship, that we have called home for the last sixteen days, back dockside.  My hat goes off to them.  James directed everyone to get into their positions. A small rubber ball with a long lines attached was hurled by one of the men, who was on port bow of the ship, overboard and onto land.  Waiting on shore, several young Navy men caught the ball and pulled the rope onto land forming a tight rope between the ship and land that any member of the Wallenda family could walk.  As the onshore men placed the rope on the davit, the ship motored forward to use the rope to pull the ships aft to the dock.  Upon docking, the crew of the Pisces completed our landing by connecting the massive cables that were lifted by a crane on shore.  These cables allowed the ship to shut off her engines, that had been going nonstop for the last sixteen days, and run on shore power.  Ah quiet at last.  Just because we were tied to land, it did not mean that our jobs were over.

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Off loading the scientific equipment aboard the Pisces.

We still had to move the cargo nets with all of our scientific equipment to land, and then the arduous task of loading it all into the team moving van.  The task of loading the van should have taken hours but the phrase “many hands make light work” was reaffirmed as the entire scientific party jumped in and made light work of the job.  Once complete, we all gathered, took our last pictures, hugged, and said our goodbyes.  And just like that, I jumped in a minivan with five of the ship’s crew and Matt Wilson, the team hydrographer.

Within 20 minutes we were at the airport and all headed to our gates.  My flight from Jacksonville was relatively easy, with no issues but when I arrived at O’Hare the same could not be said.  I think at last count my gate was moved at least 3 times before I made my way to gate G1.  Twenty minutes before flight time, I noticed that we had not boarded the plane yet.  The gate attendants were scurrying around like a mouse running from my cats, and then the ominous “ding” came over the speaker.  “Ahh ladies and gentlemen, we are sorry about the delay but we are experiencing some mechanical issues with plane”.  “We will try to keep you informed as to the progress and hopefully get you on to your final destination quickly”.  “Thank you for your understanding”.  After an hour or so, we finally got the direction that we were again moving to another gate.

As we were walking to our final exiting point, I started talking to a couple of the flight attendants and asked them what had happened.  Apparently, my original plane had taken a goose missile to one of the engines and it totally destroyed any chances that plane would fly again in the next several weeks.  As you could imagine, the attendants said it was quite a stressful situation.  I, for one, am very thankful that they changed my plane.  Finally, I boarded my new plane and made my way to my seat.  I could not wait to see my wife who was waiting for me at the airport.  As we taxied down the runway, the pilot came on the planes intercom and informed us that she was going to try to speed up our flight time a bit.  Speed up a bit?  I guess.  Our scheduled flight was to take 45 minutes to travel from Chicago O’Hare to Bloomington Regional Airport.  Our captain did it in 25 minutes flat.  Woo hoo.  I am going to American Airlines to request that she trains the entire fleet.  Just before landing, as if I could have scripted it, our plane flew over my hometown of Pontiac, Illinois.  It was then at that moment, that I knew I was home.  I could not wait to see my wife.  The plane landed and we rolled to the gate.  I don’t think it was 3 minutes and we were all off of the plane.  I hurried out the door, ran through the terminal, and there she was.  My wife was smiling and more beautiful than ever before.  I had missed her and my girls so much.

I will miss my new brothers and sisters of our scientific team and ship’s crew.  My students, family and friends are going to be amazed by all of the stories, pictures and videos. I am excited that all of them and others are going to be able to participate in reading the data from the real research we did on board.  I could not be more thankful to NOAA for my opportunity to live my childhood dream.  As I write these last sentences of my blog I am welling up with tears.  For sixteen days, in July of 2013, I aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces got to be a Marine Biologist, and ocean explorer.  I will never forget it.

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Paul Ritter in front of the ‘Pisces’ sign

Did You Know?  

I took a lot of pictures on my trip and these are what I consider my top 20 photos.

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Paul Ritter in a “gumby” suit

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Playing Bean Bags on the Pisces

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Warren Mitchell and Paul Ritter lock and load the XBT

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Me…. and my Moray

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Sea turtle off the port bow

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Paul Ritter and Shark Sucker in the wet lab of the Pisces

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Paul Ritter and a 24 lb. Red Snapper in the wet lab of the Pisces

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Paul Ritter setting Traps on the Pisces

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Paul Ritter getting to know a Blue Crab

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Paul Ritter driving the Pisces

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Sunset on the Pisces

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Catch of the day.

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Paul Ritter and Ryan Harris catching Bonito.

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Paul Ritter with a Palm Warbler

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Atlantic Spotted Dolphins

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Nurse Shark caught on our Go Pro camera

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Paul Ritter – Safety drill aboard the Pisces

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Paul Ritter and some of the many Sea Stars.

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Common Octopus

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Paul Ritter catching a Barracuda aboard the Pisces.

Paul Ritter: They Are Watching Us, July 29, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Paul Ritter
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 16– August 1, 2013 

Mission: Southeast Fishery-Independent Survey (SEFIS)
Geographical area of cruise: southeastern US Atlantic Ocean waters (continental shelf and shelf-break waters ranging from Cape Hatteras, NC to Port St. Lucie, FL)
Date: July 29, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge

7-28-13 ship data

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Happy Anniversary, Jodee!

Before I start my blog today I want to take a minute to say Happy Anniversary to my wife Jodee.  We have been married 18 wonderful years and I love her more today than ever before.  I am sorry that we can be together because  the team and I are chasing reef fish in the Atlantic Ocean.  Actually, now that I think about it this is the first time that we have not been together on our Anniversary.  That being said, there are some surprises that are being delivered to the house and I hope you like them.  I Love You,  Dear.

Science and Technology Log
Date: Monday July 29, 2013

I woke up around 5:30 this morning and it was a calm and beautiful day.  The water was as smooth as glass.  I never thought the water could be so still in the ocean.  After grabbing a cup of java, I ventured out to see the sunrise.  There sure is something about seeing a sunrise when there’s no land in sight.  It was breathtaking.

As I got ready to set out the day’s traps with my team, I went in to the dry lab to ask Zeb, our Chief Scientist, what our drop sites looked like on the bottom.  There is a lot of work that goes into preparing for our team to be able to set traps every day.  The acoustics lab / night team, consisting of  Warren Mitchell, Chief Investigator and a NOAA fisheries biologist, David Berrane a NOAA fisheries biologist, Matt Wilson a NOAA hydrographer, Dawn Glasgow a South Carolina Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist, and Neah Baechler a college student studying Geology at the College of Charleston, SC, started around 5:00 the day before.   This team is amazing.  They stay up all night mapping the ocean floor utilizing a technology that we refer to as the ME70.  The Simrad ME 70 is basically a very high resolution scientific multibeam sonar system that is utilized for data collection from the water column and the ocean floor.

What is very cool is that the system is capable of very high resolution mapping allowing the night team to predict where it is that we will have the best chances to find reef fish habitat the following day.  This team is the best at finding natural hard bottom habitat that is the quintessential reef-a-palooza.  How does the ME 70 work?  The ship sends out a cone of sound (ping) to the ocean floor and it bounces off of the ocean floor and back to the ship.  From there the ship’s computer knows the total distance that sound traveled traveled.  The data is then interpreted into a map of the ocean floor.  This explanation is overly simplified but it works.  Each morning the team takes the raw data from the ME 70 and it is corrected for tides, sound speed, and vessel offset (brings data to the waterline).  The raw sounding data is then processed into a bathymetric model that represents the sea floor and is the map that Zeb then uses to pick our trap locations.  It is magic.

Here is a sonar system measuring the depth of the ocean...

Here is a sonar system measuring the depth of the ocean…

Personal Log

Date: Monday  July 29, 2013

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Paul Ritter with a “stowaway”

Have you ever thought that animals were watching you?  I think about this all of the time.  I will be doing something and it is like my dogs are always trying to find out what I am up to.  The cats are constantly checking to see if I am going to put food in their bowl.

I do not have any animal paranoia but I do think they are watching us.   Our expedition has made me a believer.  Today we started setting our traps and we noticed that at some point in night the NOAA Ship Pisces gained two stowaways, a little House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), and a little yellow Palm Warbler (Dendroica palmarum).  These two little guys were keeping very close tabs on what our team was doing while we were setting our first traps of the day.  Gradually, this little dynamic duo gradually became more brave as we put our set of six traps into the water.  As I looked at the little birds, I was thinking to myself, “I have seen my cats watch me like this.”

I quickly looked for something to feed them.  While the NOAA Ship Pisces does carry just about everything you can think of, there is no bird food to be found.  Jenny, one of the fisheries biologist on my team, quickly came up with the idea to give the hungry little buggers some flax seed.  No go.  They were not interested.  They were however interested in the water she had set out.  Eventually, they both became brave enough to jump onto my hand in hopes of finding something there.  Again no go.  It was as we were setting out our next set of traps that the birds both did something very cool.  They were picking up the leftover bits and pieces of the Menhaden that had fallen on the ground.  Man they could eat.  There was no way they were going to leave their new found buffet.

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Paul Ritter and an octopus

During the collection of our second series of traps we noticed that again we had a stowaway.  A Common Octopus (Octopus vulgaris) had climbed aboard our trap and rode it all the way to the surface.  Upon arrival to the ship, this orange speckled cephalopod decided to abandon the trap and hit the deck.  Holy cow, it’s hard to pick up an octopus.  Their tentacles go everywhere and their suction cups hold on to everything they come in contact with, including my arm.  Once it grabbed my arm, our eyes made contact.  This little guy was watching me.  Maybe he was trying to figure out what exactly I was, or trying to figure out if I was going to eat him.  Nonetheless, he was not letting go.   Eventually, a number of us were able to hold him before he decided he was tired of the game and fell over the side of the ship, back to the depths below.  Ironically, our third set of traps also netted an octopus.  I suggested that we rename our expedition the cephalopod survey.  The team did not think that was funny.

Once on board, the second octopus also had its eyes keenly focused on everyone and everything that was going on.   It stared everyone down.  I always thought octopuses were very cool, but now after my encounters I think they are amazing.

Atlantic Spotted Dolphin

Atlantic Spotted Dolphin

Normally, our third series of traps on board would mean the end of the day; however due to our amazing results from the previous trappings Zeb decided we could set three more individual traps on a short run.  As we set the traps, we noticed that our ship was being followed.  A pod 4 of Atlantic spotted dolphin (Stenella frontalis) were playing on the waves around the ship and soon there would be more.   One by one, more dolphins showed up.  While we were bringing in the traps, the dolphins waited by the buoys to see what was going on.  We brought in the traps, emptied our catch of Black Sea Bass into our counting bins and Zach and I would roll the chevron traps back to the aft deck to be stored.  While we were walking back, I felt as if we were being followed.  Sure enough we looked down and there they were, following us to the back of the ship.  They truly were amazing to watch.  After the second trap was aboard, the bridge of the ship put the ship into reverse to get a better angle at the third and last trap.  I never thought a 209 foot ship could travel the same speed backward as forward.  It was exciting.  What was even more exhilarating was the fact that the dolphins were all on the back of the ship riding the wave as the ship pushed itself through the water.  I think my camera snapped fifty pictures before they disappeared under the Pisces.

This experience has been a life changing dream come true for me.  To be able to work, side by side, some of the most brilliant fisheries biologist, hydrographers, and geologist the planet has to offer has been humbling.  I am truly thankful to be able to be apart of  this crew and it is exciting to know that while we are exploring the different habitat and animals around us, they are watching us too.

Did You Know?

Did you know the word cephalopod means “head-footed”?

Did you know that octopuses can change their color using chromatophores? http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-do-squid-and-octopuse

The name octopus came from the Greek language which means eight footed.

Want to know more about the Atlantic Spotted Dolphin?

http://www.arkive.org/atlantic-spotted-dolphin/stenella-frontalis/

Paul Ritter: Start Your Day the Right Way with the Pisces McMuffin, July 24, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Paul Ritter
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 16– August 1, 2013 

Mission: Southeast Fishery-Independent Survey (SEFIS)
Geographical area of cruise: southeastern US Atlantic Ocean waters (continental shelf and shelf-break waters ranging from Cape Hatteras, NC to Port St. Lucie, FL)
Date: July 24, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge

7-24-13 ship data

Science and Technology Log
Date: Wednesday 7-24-2013

Zeb and Doug in the lab making the call.

Zeb and Doug in the lab making the call.

Woke up this morning around 6:15.  Worried that I overslept, I rushed as fast as I could to get to the aft deck for our daily trap baiting routine.  As I walked on deck, I quickly realized that no one else was on time either.  I knew something was amiss.  Immediately, I headed to the dry lab to find where the rest of the crew was located.  The day before we had to cut our expedition short due to high seas and heavy currents and today while the waves have calmed down the currents have not.  Zeb made the decision to wait until 8:15 to make our first drop of the day.  Quickly, traps one through six went into the water, and then came the waiting game. Ninety minutes went by and with fingers crossed we reeled in our chevron traps.  First trap in….. nothing.  Second trap….Nothing.  The third trap came to the surface and at first it appeared that we were skunked once again, but upon further inspection we had caught an Almaco Jack.  Almaco Jack (Seriola rivoliana) is a game fish that is in the same family as Yellowtail and Amberjack.  While I have not eaten this particular species of Jack, the crew tells me it is quite tasty.  An interesting fact about the Almaco Jack is that they remove their surface parasites by rubbing against the skin of passing sharks.  Nothing like asking for a shark to eat you.  Fourth trap was a big zero just like the first two, but the fifth trap had netted a Coney Grouper (Cephalopholis fulva) and Spider Crab (Libinia dubia).  Not many in our party had previously seen a Coney Grouper and it was exciting in the dry lab as the scientists all inspected our little five pound red beauty.  As for the Spider Crab, aka. Decorator Crab, I was shocked that it decided to ride the trap all the way to the surface, when it was small enough to escape at any point in time.  The Decorator Crab is so named for being a master of disguise.  This cunning little crustacean affixes to bits and pieces of seaweed, rock and other debris to disguise itself perfectly for the habitat that it lives in.  To me the Decorator Crab is one very cool little dude.  Even though our team found a couple of cool specimens it was not enough for us to spend the rest of the day there.  So Zeb made the call to head south.  Our next stop the waters of Florida.  It is estimated that it will take us around six hours to make the journey.

Me and My Coney

Me and My Coney

Say Hello to My Little Friend - Spider Crab

Say Hello to My Little Friend – Spider Crab

Personal Log

Cornhole

Cornhole anyone?

Having the lab clean and all of our chores completed we had to find a way to keep busy.  So what else could be better than playing Cornhole on the aft deck while traveling the waters south at 9.6 knots or about 11 miles per hour.  Zach, Julie, Patrick and I played about 10 rounds before we got tired and headed below deck.  I am sure you probably have wondered about life on the NOAA Ship Pisces.  There are several work schedules which people follow.  The crewmember’s position on the ship determines what shift they work.  It is possible to work two 4 hour shifts, an 8 hour shift or, 12 hours on, 12 hours off.  It just depends on your particular job on the shift.

Most all staterooms house two members of the crew.  Crewmembers are generally placed in staterooms where the other person in the room has an opposite schedule.  In other words, one person works when the other person sleeps.  This schedule seems to work well as long as the person who is awake does not disturb the person sleeping.  Each stateroom has its own private bathroom with a shower.  One thing that I have learned quickly is that it can be tricky to use the restroom while underway.  I do not want to go too in depth about using the privy but let’s just say this, it can be very tricky to use the restroom or shower for that matter, when you are bouncing off the walls from the waves outside.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner on the Pisces are served promptly at the hours of 7:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.  The crew all make their way to the mess deck, where Moises, the Chief Steward, has an entire smorgasbord prepared and ready to eat.  Breakfast usually consists of a combination of eggs, pancakes, sausage, biscuits, English muffins, fried potatoes (hash browns), and BACON.  No breakfast would be complete without BACON.  The other day one of the NOAA scientists, Patrick Raley, suggested that I needed to try the Pisces McMuffin, which consists of bacon, egg, cheese and salmon on an English muffin. Well, when in Rome….  So I decided to have one for breakfast that day.  It was amazing.  I am here to tell you folks, if McDonalds finds out about this, you will find one on their menu.  Lunch and dinner consist of some meat (steak, crab, chicken, meatloaf, pork, scallops, and fish), vegetable (steamed, sautéed, or raw), some sort of potato, and a salad.

One thing I can tell you about being a field research scientist is that it is usually a messy job.  My clothes generally get destroyed every day.  Once on board, some species of the caught fish are simply measured for length and weight.  The real mess comes when we catch some of the more sought after species, which are more the focus of our study.  Each of these fish get a complete work up, including the collection of their otolith.  What is an otolith?  An otolith is basically a bone in the head of a fish that can tell us its age.  This bone would be similar to a person’s ear bone.   Why do we want to know how old fish are?  Knowing the age of any population allows biologists to better understand how populations react to various environmental and human pressures.  It allows us to be able to manage our natural resources in a sustainable way.

The Pisces McMuffin

The Pisces McMuffin

Anyway, it is not a good idea when you come to do your own expedition to bring new clothes or shoes.  It all will get very dirty.  Under the mess hall is the laundry facility.  I have already done one load of laundry since I have been on board and I am sure I will do many more before I head home.  To do laundry is no different from doing it at home with one exception.  Due to having only a few clothing items on this trip, I have to wash them all at the same time.  When my wife, Jodee, reads this, she will cringe, but I am not separating the whites, colors, lights or darks.

Did you know?

Did you know that otoliths are used to age fish?  How do we use otoliths to age a fish?  I would say it is like using tree rings to age a tree.  Do you want to give it a try?  http://www.afsc.noaa.gov/refm/age/ageinginteractive/pop_easy.htm



Paul Ritter: Lock and Load the XBT – The Joke is on Me, July 22, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Paul Ritter
Aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces
July 16– August 1, 2013 

Mission: Southeast Fishery-Independent Survey (SEFIS)
Geographical area of cruise: southeastern US Atlantic Ocean waters (continental shelf and shelf-break waters ranging from Cape Hatteras, NC to Port St. Lucie, FL)
Date: July 22, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge

7-22-13 ship data

Science and Technology Log

Yesterday was a very exciting day.  After we dropped off our first traps, the ship’s officers brought the ship to a full stop and it was time to release the CTD.  What is a CTD?  CTD stands for Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth.  The CTD unit  is an array of sensors that is lowered to just above the bottom of the ocean to take a continuous profile of the water column.  Moments after the CTD reaches the bottom it is brought back to the surface and the deck hands bring it back on board the ship.  From here, the scientific crew can analyze the data from the CTD to determine the water conditions for the drop area.  On some expeditions, the CTD is fitted with a device that actually takes water samples at the different depths for chemical and biological analysis.   This information allows the scientists to get a complete picture of the water column where the traps are set and where the fish live.

What is a CTD? CTD stands for Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth.

Another instrument that is used by the ship is the Expendable Bathythermograph or XBT.  This device was used by the military for many years to measure the temperature of the water at various depths.  The most interesting thing about this probe is how it is deployed.

Warren Mitchell, a fisheries biologist for NOAA’s Beaufort Laboratory, decided it would be a good idea for me to be trained firsthand to deploy this vital instrument.  The first thing I had to do was put on my hardhat and safety vest and step on to the recovery deck.  At that point Warren called up to the bridge to ask for permission to drop the XBT.  The officers on the bridge gladly gave us permission and Warren then got me into a launching position with my feet spread apart and my elbow braced on hip.  The CO then happened to walk by and asked me if I had my safety glasses on, to which I immediately said yes.

It was at this point that Warren gave me permission to launch the XBT.  I was excited.  I was ready.  I could not wait for Warren to give me the signal.  The only problem was I did not know the signal and I could not find the trigger.  I did not know what to do.  I was getting worried.  Warren then repeated the orders “launch”.  “How?” I replied.  Tip the barrel forward, lean forward, he replied, and the XBT slid out of the tube into the water.

The joke was on me.  Here I had been led to believe that this was going to be some grand launch something just shy of the space shuttle taking off into space.  The reality was that the XBT just falls into the water.  Very non-exciting for me but everyone on the boat laughed for hours.  So did I.  It is good to be treated like one of the family.  After our final set of traps for the day, I ventured out to see what it is like to work in the acoustics lab.

Warren Mitchell NOAA Scientist instructs Paul Ritter on the proper use of the XBT.

Warren Mitchell NOAA Scientist gives instruction to Paul Ritter on the proper deployment of the XBT.

Personal Log

Monday 7-22-13

Nurse shark outside chevron trap.

Nurse shark outside our chevron trap.

To this point this expedition has been so amazing.  Would you believe there are 3 people aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces that live or once lived within 60 miles from my home town? Crazy I know.  We have had only one medium sized squall to this point with 3 to 5 foot seas.  We have brought up traps with tons of jellyfish, in which I got a nematocyst (jellyfish stinging cell) to the hand.  It was not too bad but I did feel a slight burning sensation.

We have had a number of different types of starfish, all of which I have never seen.  One particular trap that we sent to the ocean floor, while upon retrieval did not have any fish, but did have a secret to share.  After Julie Vecchio, one of our volunteer scientists replayed the video cameras that are on the top of the trap, we discovered that a nurse shark had been trolling the area around our trap. I have seen so many amazing things.  Several days ago we were hauling traps and just as we brought our trap up there was a sea turtle that came up to the boat.  I snapped a couple of photos, as quick as I could and then went right back to work.  It was not two minutes later and I saw a baby sea turtle the size of a fifty cent piece.  Immediately, the first thing that came to my mind was thought of Crush and Squirt from Disney’s Finding Nemo talking to me.

Crush: Okay. Squirt here will now give you a rundown of proper exiting technique.

Squirt: Good afternoon “Paul”. We’re gonna have a great jump today. Okay, first crank a hard cutback as you hit the wall. There’s a screaming bottom curve, so watch out. Remember: rip it, roll it, and punch it.

 Paul: Whoa! Dude! That was totally cool!

Turtle off the port bow.

Turtle off the port bow.

Tuesday July 23, 2013

Somewhere in the middle of the night the wind picked up and so did the waves.  I share a stateroom with Zach Gillum a graduate student from East Carolina University.  This kid is amazing.  We really have become great friends.

One of the great things about this trip is to be totally immersed in an expedition with like-minded people. We will all hang around waiting for traps, or eating dinner and start conversations about some environmental issue or ecological principle.  I sure wished I lived closer to my new friends.  Anyway, our stateroom window is about 4 foot above the waterline.  Many times during the night, our window was under the water as a wave passed by.  When we woke up, the wind and waves increased.  A four to seven foot wave is enough to make many run for the toilet.  So far so good for me when it comes to sea sickness.

I just hope we don’t find any bigger waves.  We gathered on the aft deck as we usually do but we delayed deployment, waiting for improvement in weather conditions.  The major problem we had was with larger waves comes the possibility of the traps bobbing up and down on the ocean floor.  With adverse conditions on pick-up, we are also more likely to drag traps across the bottom.  We set the first six traps, pulled them up and just as we had suspected not many fish.  Around 1:00 P.M. Zeb Schobernd, our Lead Scientist, made the decision to head to another location.   It just goes to show you that when you are at sea, you need to follow the 3 F’s.  Flexibility, fortitude, and following orders.

Waiting to work.

Waiting to work.

Did You Know?

Did you know that a jelly fish’s nematocyst are like mini speargun?

These little stinging cells fire when they come in contact with the surface of and organism.  Some jellyfish tentacles can contain up to 5000 or more nematocyst.

Paul Ritter: Teamwork, July 20, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Paul Ritter
Aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces
July 16– August 1, 2013 

Mission: Southeast Fishery-Independent Survey (SEFIS)
Geographical area of cruise: southeastern US Atlantic Ocean waters (continental shelf and shelf-break waters ranging from Cape Hatteras, NC to Port St. Lucie, FL)
Date: July 20, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge

7-20-13 ship data

Science and Technology Log

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEach day the fish traps aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces are baited and prepared with cameras, and sent to the ocean floor where they must sit for ninety minutes.  It is necessary to keep this time consistent for all locations and traps so we can compare apples to apples.  We call this a “control variable”.  The particular parameter that someone measures that is a constant and non-changing point of comparison in an experiment or scientific observation is a controlled variable for consistency.

After being on the bottom for the time allotted, the officers on the bridge drive the ship back to the number one trap and drives alongside the trap’s buoys.  Approximately, half way down the ship is the side sampling deck.  From the side sampling station, approximately halfway down the ship, we take a grappling tied to a long rope and hurl it over the side, aiming between the two buoys. It is important that we hit it on the first attempt.

If we miss, the ship has to take vital time to maneuver around to make another attempt at the buoys.  Have we missed?  Honestly, yes but only a couple of times.  If we have done our job correctly, we pull in the grappling hook and with it the buoys, and rope.  The buoys are then unhooked from the rope and the rope is threaded into a pot hauler, which is a large tapered wheel that grabs onto the rope without slipping.  The pot hauler then hydraulically pulls the rope and trap up to the surface.  Once at the surface, another hook and winch is connected to the trap and the entire rig is pulled up on the side sampling deck.  It is at this time that our team attacks the trap by taking off the cameras and unloading its cargo of fish.  If we have fish, they are taken to the wet lab and all the measurements are taken.  Once empty, the trap is carried to the main aft deck and prepared for the next round of trapping.  It really is a lot of heavy work but it is all worth it to understand the ecology of our ocean reefs.

Personal Log

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Patrick and I Working on a Red Snapper

7-20-13

Today started around 12:30 am.  It was not something that I intended to do.  The night before we went to bed around 10:00 pm.  I was sore and very tired from the long and hard day we had fishing.  For some reason I woke up and looked out the window and saw that it was very bright outside.  I thought it was daybreak and it was time to get up.  I looked at my clock and it said it was 12:30.  But that could not be.  It was too light outside for just pass midnight.  I actually thought my clock was broke so I fired up my computer to check the time.  Sure enough, it was 12:30.

The moon was so bright and reflecting off of the water in a way that the light was coming right into my room.  Crazy.  After the confusion, I finally made it back to sleep.  Around 5:30 my internal alarm clock went off.  I actually never need an alarm clock to wake up, ever.  For some reason I always have been able to just think about when I want to get up and I do.  Anyway, I got up, brushed my teeth and headed to work.

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Our Team in the Wet Lab

At 6:15, I met up with my brothers and sisters of the trap setting team which consists of Doug Devries – NOAA Scientist; Patrick Raley – NOAA Scientist; Jenny Ragland – NOAA Scientist; Julie Vecchio – volunteer Scientist; Zach Gillum – graduate student / Scientist, and me – the new guy scientist.  Have you ever watched Star Trek?  Usually each show’s scientific mission consists of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Bones, Lt. Uhura, who are all in one color uniform, and a new guy who is in the red shirt.  The mission goes something like this.  Captain Kirk will say “Mr. Spock go check out the nondescript rock.  Bones see if you can get some readings on that green flower over there, Uhura please open up a channel to the ship, and New Guy, go check out that purple pulsating blob over next to the cliff.”  I really hope these guys don’t watch Star Trek…..

To be completely honest, it is nothing like Star Trek at all.  Our team is amazing.  I am very humble that they have accepted me into their family.  They are so fun to be around and I could not be more thankful for their friendship and guidance.  Each of us has to play many vital roles in the mission. This expedition would not work if we did not have each other to rely on.  I don’t want to let my teammates down, and I will do anything to make sure that does not happen.

Anyway, back to the traps…..  We set our first set of traps of the day and ninety minutes later we discovered that our return was not very good.  Our second set of traps, on the other hand, were much better and netted many fish.  Some of the fish included Black Sea Bass, Grey Trigger, Tomtate, White Grunt, and one of the most desirable fish on the market, the Red Snapper.  Red Snapper is a fish that can grow upwards of 40 lbs. and live as long as 50 years if it can escape being caught.  This amazingly beautiful red fish has had much pressure from commercial and sport fishermen and as a result their numbers have dwindled.  After speaking with Zeb Schobernd, our mission’s Chief Scientist, it is his hope that due to strict regulation of the harvest of the species, we will see an increase of the population.  The data we are collecting will help develop a better survey for reef fish populations in the future, especially grouper and red snapper..  Lunch was at 11:00 and what a lunch it was.  Crab legs, and prime rib.  Man, the crew of the Pisces eats very well and I am thankful.  My wife is a great cook, and I would say that the ship’s chief steward is a close second.  After lunch, we quickly we set our third series of traps and were able to increase our catch exponentially.  Dinner consisted of Jamaican jerk chicken, pork roast, green beans, lettuce salad, and cheese cake.  After dinner I took a little time to visit the team in the acoustics lab.  The acoustics lab is responsible for mapping out the ocean floor to determine where we should put traps out the next day.  I will probably touch more on them in my next blog.

Swabbing the deck

Swabbing the deck

Did you know?

Did you know that NOAA ships do not just stay in one particular location of the world?

The Pisces has sailed from Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico, and down to Venezuela and back.  Not to mention the Pisces is one of the fastest ships in the NOAA fleet capable of reaching speeds greater than 17 knots with a following current.

Paul Ritter: Trap-Tastic – A Great Day in the Sun, July 18, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Paul Ritter
Aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces
July 16– August 1, 2013 

Mission: Southeast Fishery-Independent Survey (SEFIS)
Geographical area of cruise: Southeastern US Atlantic Ocean waters (continental shelf and shelf-break waters ranging from Cape Hatteras, NC to Port St. Lucie, FL)
Date: July 18, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge

7-18-13 ship data

Science and Technology Log

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Paul Ritter onboard NOAA Ship Pisces

Life at sea is crazy and amazing.  It is kind of like Forrest Gump would say “ you never know what you’re gonna get”.  Today we set out our first two sets of traps.  Six individual traps are baited up with a fish called Menhaden—Brevoortia tyrannus.

Menhaden are about 15 to 35 cm long and they very stinky.  They might stink more than any fish I have ever smelled.  Menhaden are high in oil and a major source of omega-3 fatty acids, which make them delicious to other fish and keeps them from having heart disease and Alzheimer’s.  It must work.  Think about it, I have never heard of a fish having a heart attack let alone Alzheimer’s.  Back to the traps….

Each trap gets four bait lines of Menhaden and then we cut up and throw in eight more just for good measure, kind of like they did in Jaws.  Once the bait is in, the trap door is shut, and cameras are put on tops of each trap.  One camera facing forward and one camera facing backwards completes the setup for the reef survey chevron trap.  The cool thing about the cameras on the traps is the front ones are Go Pro video cameras which are most often used in extreme sports.  I actually own two of them.  No. I am not really in to extreme sports.  We use them as helmet cams when we ride our four wheelers on trails.

The traps, which are individually numbered, are laid out on the aft deck (back) of the ship to prepare for sending them to the ocean floor.   An amazing feature of the ship is the ramp deck.  The moment Zeb “the chief scientist” gives the shout on the radio, Ryan “the skilled fisherman” (his actual title) pulls the lever and the back of the ship, or ramp deck, slides down.  It is at this point when the traps, cameras, and Menhaden are pushed off the back and all fly to the reef below.   It takes a little over a minute for the trap to reach the bottom which is around 70 meters or 223 feet deep.  Ninety minutes later we recover the traps one by one and inspect the catch.

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Menhaden bait fish dangling from stringers

Personal Log

Thursday July 18, 2013

Well, the great big exciting news for this expedition….  I don’t get sea sick.  Woo Hoo.  You might not think this is such an amazing thing but you have no idea how happy I am to be able to say this.  We had at least one person who got sick already and I am thankful not to have gone through it.

I woke up around 5:30 A.M. this morning to get ready for our first day of work.  Breakfast consisted of pancakes, sausage, bacon, eggs, and juice.   I am here to tell you that the Chief Steward (Moises) aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces might be one of the best things to happen to her.   While I have only been on board for 48 hours, it is readily apparent that the crew has been well taken care of when it comes to eating.  Delicious.

After breakfast our team made our way to set up our video/chevron live trap on the aft (back)deck to prepare for the day’s work.  At around 7:45, we got the call from Zeb (the chief scientist) in the dry lab to start dropping traps.  First set of six traps made it into the water with no trouble.   Ninety minutes later we hauled them all back in one by one.  We emptied the live fish from the traps into tubs and placed them into the wet lab.  Zack Gillum, a graduate assistant from East Carolina University and my roommate for this expedition, and I carried the traps back to the aft deck and prepared them for re-baiting.  With the ship in full gear it only took about a half hour for us to reach our second drop zone or sampling area.

After our ninety minute bottom time, the traps came up, the traps were cleaned out and we were done sampling for the day.  The main reason we were done is that it was going to take us quite awhile to travel to our next sample site.    During this time of cleaning up, we emptied the traps, which were very smelly, and filled with half eaten Menhaden.  Wow they even stink after they have been underwater for ninety minutes.  which included swabbing the deck.  The only thing I could think of when we were scrubbing away is a song I learned during my childhood… It goes something like this….

Maybe you've heard the expression, "Swab the Deck?" It just means "Mop the Floor."

Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “Swab the Deck?” It just means “Mop the Floor.”

If you’re a pirate and you know it, swab the deck (swish, swish),

If you’re a pirate and you know it, swab the deck (swish, swish),

If you’re a pirate and you know it, then your face will surely show it (swish, swish),

If you’re a pirate and you know it, swab the deck (swish, swish).

Trust me if you sing it once it will stick in your head the rest of your life, it has mine for the last 35 plus years.

Somewhere in the middle of about the 50th verse of the song, we had an emergency fire drill.  It was relatively easy.  We simply had to quickly make our way to our prearranged staging area.  No big deal.  Shortly after that the Captain of the Pisces called an emergency evacuation drill.  This drill was not quite as easy. We had to run to our stateroom, grab long sleeve t-shirts, long pants, a hat, and our survival suit.  Once on deck we had to don all of our gear in about sixty seconds.  Man that thing was hot and sweat was pouring off of me like water going over Niagara Falls.  What is worse, I looked like a giant red Gumby Doll.  After the drill we finished cleaning up our messes, and filleted all of our fish and whatever we do not need to keep for research, will get donated to the local food pantries.  NOAA is amazing and so are her people.

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Paul Ritter, in his ‘Gumby Suit’

 

Did You Know? 

Ships use different terms to describe direction on a ship.  They are easy to remember.

Port = left side

Starboard = Right side

Aft = Back

Paul Ritter: Getting Ready to Sail with the Pisces and Her Crew! July 16, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Paul Ritter
Almost on board NOAA Ship Pisces
July 16 – August 1, 2013

Mission: Southeast Fishery-Independent Survey (SEFIS)
Geographical area of cruise:southeastern US Atlantic Ocean waters (continental shelf and shelf-break waters ranging from Cape Hatteras, NC to Port St. Lucie, FL)
Date: July 16, 2013

Personal Log

My name is Paul Ritter and I am Biology and Earth Science teacher at Pontiac Township High School, in Pontiac, Illinois.  I have an amazing wife by the name of Jodee and am the proud papa to my two girls, Baylee and Taylor.  Even though I have only been gone for one day, I miss them already.  Pontiac is located 130 miles south of Chicago on Interstate 55.  Our community, where my wife, children, and I were born and raised,  is the epitome of Corn Town USA.  With that being said, our community does have several distinctions that set us apart from being a typical agricultural town.  Pontiac is home to the National Pontiac Automobile Museum, the Wall Dogs Museum for international artists, the National Route 66 museum, and a museum call the War Museum that showcases our service men and women who were in all of the major wars of the USA.  Our town is the number two tourism town in Illinois behind Chicago.  The number two largest landfill in the USA calls Pontiac home.  We have a maximum security prison that houses around 1,200 inmates.  Caterpillar, among other industry, is a valued company that hangs its hat in Pontiac. It hardly seems possible but this is my 20th year of being a teacher. You know, for me teaching is just as exciting today as it was that first year in the classroom.

The Ritter Family

The Ritter Family

Being from the Midwest, people from my region associate NOAA with our planet’s weather.  In reality, NOAA is so much more.  NOAA plays a major role in Environmental Satellite Data, Marine Fisheries, Oceans, Weather, and Atmospheric Research.  NOAA is so vitally important to the sustainability of our world.   It is for this exact reason that I applied to be a NOAA Teacher at Sea.  It is my goal to find real ways to integrate the amazing work of NOAA into our classes. My specific mission is aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces with the Southeast Fishery-Independent Survey (SEFIS) group which is a fishery-independent monitoring and research program targeting reef fish in southeast U.S. continental shelf waters.  Initiated in 2010, SEFIS works cooperatively with the long-term and ongoing Marine Resources Monitoring, Assessment, and Prediction (MARMAP) sampling program to:

  • provide fishery-independent data to support reef fish stock assessments
  • perform reef fish ecology research, including, but not limited to
    • assessment of spatiotemporal distribution
    • habitat affiliation patterns
NOAA Ship Pisces was launched at VT Halter Marine, in Moss Point, Mississippi on December 19th, 2007, christened by Dr. Annette Nevin Shelby, wife of Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama. Commissioned on November 6, 2009, Pisces is the third of four new Fisheries Survey Vessels to be built by NOAA. The ship was named Pisces by a team of five seventh grade students from Sacred Heart School in Southaven, Mississippi.

NOAA Ship Pisces was launched at VT Halter Marine, in Moss Point, Mississippi on December 19th, 2007, christened by Dr. Annette Nevin Shelby, wife of Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama. Commissioned on November 6, 2009, Pisces is the third of four new Fisheries Survey Vessels to be built by NOAA. The ship was named Pisces by a team of five seventh grade students from Sacred Heart School in Southaven, Mississippi.

Monday July 15, 2013

I woke up extra early for some reason around 5:00 A.M even though the night before was a late night with the final night of my daughter Baylee’s play, the Little Mermaid.  Excited and anxious about leaving on my great expedition, I knew I needed to get out of the house or I was going to wake everyone else.  I headed to town and filled up the car with fuel.  Wanting to waste some time, I headed to some of our local stores to get some last minutes for the trip.  Around 8:30, Jodee and the girls drove me to the airport in Bloomington, Illinois.  It was exciting and sad at the same time.   I was very much looking forward to my expedition, but I wished I could take the family to be a part of the adventure.  We have had so many adventures together and I know they would have had a great time.  Maybe next time.  I flew from Bloomington to Chicago O’Hare International Airport and then finally landing in Jacksonville, Florida.  The ride from Bloomington to Chicago was quick and easy but the same could not be said for the next leg of the flight to Florida.

Our plane to Jacksonville was around 30 minutes late to land in Chicago and then when finally aboard we taxied around the runway for about 25 minutes.  It felt like we were on a behind the scenes tour of O’Hare.  I was waiting for the pilot to come over the announcements and say “Ladies and gentlemen if you look to your right you can see Lake Michigan”.  Finally in the air, somewhere over Georgia we hit the turbulence.  Man it was bumpy.  While this was going on, I took the opportunity to get to know the guy who was next to me in seat 11B.  Ironically, we went to the same college at the same time and lived in the same dormitory.  Small world.  We finally arrived in Jacksonville and off to the hotel I went.  You know it is funny,  I have been so fortunate to be able to travel to some amazing places, but I have never been on a ship in the ocean for pleasure or otherwise.  I am not really sure if I will get sea sick or not.  I’m thinking not, but I am guessing I will find out very quickly.

Tuesday July 16, 2013

Dr. Zeb Schobernd and the rest of the scientists are making their way down to meet me in Jacksonville to pick me up at the hotel.  Here is another very cool part of this trip….  Zeb’s hometown, which is Bloomington, Illinois, is only 35 miles from where my family I live.   From there we are headed to the Pisces which is in port to spend our first night on board.  I look forward to getting to know my new shipmates.

Did You Know?  NOAA does more than just weather? In fact, NOAA is involved in every aspect of our amazing world.  Here are some of their divisions. ·  National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service ·  National Marine Fisheries Service ·  National Ocean Service ·  National Weather Service ·  Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research