Cassie Kautzer: The Big Picture! Aug 19, 2014

NOAA Teacher Sea

Cassie Kautzer

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

August 16 – September 5, 2014

Mission: Hydrographic Survey

Geographical Area of Survey: Woody Island Channel, Kodiak, Alaska

Temperature:  14°C  (~57°F), Mostly Sunny

Science & Technology Log

Plans have changed quite a bit since I first found out I would be joining the Rainier on the next leg of their mission.  Instead of heading to Cold Bay as originally planned for today, several highly skilled crew members are preparing to join the Fairweather, the Rainier’s sister ship, and help get her back to Seattle, Washington, as she is done for the field season.  Those crew members helping out will return to Kodiak and the Rainier next week, in time to head out and survey around the other side of Kodiak Island.  Until their return, the Rainier is staying “alongside”, (or docked) at the Coast Guard Base in Kodiak (the largest Coast Guard Base in the United States).

NOAA Ship Rainier at the Coast Guard Base in Kodiak, AK.

NOAA Ship Rainier at the Coast Guard Base in Kodiak, AK.

While we are alongside, however, there is plenty of work to be done!  Some survey technicians are busy processing and analyzing data from past projects and surveys, while other techs are planning and preparing a survey around the Woody Island Channel, slightly Northeast of where we are currently docked.  The Woody Island Channel is an important one to get surveyed, as most of the maritime traffic (traffic on the water) coming into Kodiak, goes through the Woody Island Channel.

We will begin that survey work tomorrow, taking out several Launch boats (Survey Launches that are about 30 feet long, are carried aboard the Rainier and able to be deployed for survey missions) to begin gathering sounding data from the ocean floor  in that area.  While the survey technicians make their plans and preparations, I found myself thinking about the big picture: Why is NOAA here?  Why do we need scientists mapping the ocean floor?

To be honest, I had never heard of Hydrography before I applied for the NOAA Teacher as Sea program.  Hydrography is the science of mapping the ocean floor. I feel that I should have been aware of this, however, because Hydrography work affects all of our lives, even if we don’t live anywhere near the ocean (like those of us that live in Arkansas!  Here is how:

  • NOAA is responsible for producing nautical charts for all of our waters, including the territories. This is approximately 3.4 million square (nautical) miles of underwater territory and 95,000 linear (nautical) miles of shoreline.
  • Looking globally, only 5% of the oceans have been mapped with modern Sonar techniques. About half of the area that is charted, is from Lead Line Soundings (some dating back to the 1800’s).  And then there are places like the Arctic, that have never been mapped.
  • Today, commerce drives the use of our oceanic highways. More than ¾ of all goods and supplies in the United States are shipped and delivered across our oceans.  More than ½ our domestic oil comes by ship as well.  And, the grain that we export to countries around the world, goes by ship!

Without accurate survey information, these commercial ships, as well as any fishing or recreational vessels, cannot safely navigate (find their way) through different ocean routes.  Running into an unexpected feature (underwater landform, rocks, an old wreck (shipwreck), or other obstructions) can be very dangerous and costly to any ship.  Without updated nautical charts (maps), boats, ships, and vessels of any size face many unknown hazards as they try to navigate safely (often with goods we need) to their destination.  The Woody Island Channel that we will be surveying this week, is just three days in Kodiak, I have seen two freight ships, a Coast Guard Vessel near 300 feet long, and many small fishing vessels travel through this passage.

So the Big Picture?

THIS… is dangerous for people, and affects global commerce, import, exports, etc.   THIS is what hydrographers don’t want to happen:

This MV Miner ran ashore on these rocks on its way from Montreal to Turkey in 2011.  This is one thing NOAA hopes to prevent with updated nautical charts from hydrographic surveys.  (Courtesty of Canada's  TheStar.Com)

This MV Miner ran ashore on these rocks on its way from Montreal to Turkey in 2011. This is one thing NOAA hopes to prevent with updated nautical charts from hydrographic surveys. (Courtesty of Canada’s TheStar.Com)

Personal Log     

The first several days in Alaska have been amazing.  While we are alongside in Kodiak, I have been able to do some exploring after work each day! I have walked along the beach and hiked up into the mountains.

Me, atop Old Woman's Mountain, Kodiak Island, Alaska.  (Courtesy of ENS Micki Ream)

Me, atop Old Woman’s Mountain, Kodiak Island, Alaska. (Courtesy of ENS Micki Ream)

Alaska is beautiful – so majestic!  I have been fortunate enough to enjoy some beautiful weather, in the high 50s, and sunny most days!  This is rather unusual, they tell me- it is usually starting to cool down and get very rainy this time of year.  I told them I must have brought the warm weather with me from Arkansas!  I am going to try and enjoy it while it lasts, as I am sure I will not luck out to spend three weeks in the sunshine!

For my students:

Check out this graph of the wildlife I have seen thus far!  I am only tracking wildlife that I have seen UP CLOSE (within 20 feet – except for the bear – it would be dangerous to get that close to a bear)!

Wildlife I have seen thus far, graphed using Create A Graph (

Wildlife I have seen thus far, graphed using Create A Graph (

Oh kids, I am also wondering if you can tell me:

1. What is the difference between SQUARE miles and LINEAR miles?

2. What kind of tools do you think Hydrographers (or Hydrographic Surveyors) need to survey and map the ocean floor?

Cassie Kautzer: Alaska or Bust! August 11, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cassie Kautzer

(Almost) Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

August 18 – September 4, 2014

Mission: Hydrographic Survey

Geographical area of cruise: Cold Bay, Alaska

Date: August 11, 2014

Personal Log

Hi! My name is Cassie Kautzer and I am writing to you from my couch in Northwest Arkansas. I am hiding inside with the air conditioning today because my thermometer shows it being 95 degrees Fahrenheit, and that is too hot for this former Wisconsin girl! I am finishing packing and doing some final research before I head to Alaska on August 16! (I am also very much looking forward to cooler temperatures!)

Science girl power!

Alaska or Bust! This science girl is ready!


I am a fifth grade teacher at Monitor Elementary in Springdale, Arkansas! I have loved MONITOR and all my little Mallards since 2008 when I had the honor of joining the Monitor Team. Monitor Elementary houses a very diverse population of around 800 students each year. This school year, I will have the pleasure of teaching science to 112 of those students, and I cannot wait to share this amazing experience with them! Since Arkansas is not a coastal state, neither my students nor I have a lot of experience with marine ecology or tidal influences. In the Paleozoic Era, however, the entire state was covered by relatively shallow ocean, the Ouachita Basin.

I applied for this wonderful learning opportunity for several reasons:

• I am like my students, I learn by DOING! I can’t take all of my students with me (though I would if I could), so I will learn and gather new information, first hand, and take back pictures, videos, stories, lessons, and activities to share with them!
• I want my students to see the bigger picture- how is our life in Arkansas affected by oceans, tides, floods, erosion?
• I want my students to see the scientific opportunities, jobs, and careers that are available to them! I want to help inspire future scientists!
• I want my girls to see women working in scientific fields!
• And… I love adventure, and exploring and learning about our beautiful world! I will not fear the unknown; I will learn and grow as I figure it out!

Whitaker Point, Hawksbill Crag Trail, Arkansas

On top of the world! I made my first visit to Whitaker Point in Arkansas this summer!

My mission this summer, from August 18 – September 4, will be a Hydrographic Survey aboard the NOAA Ship Rainier. NOAA is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA’s mission is to understand the Earth’s environment in order to conserve and care for marine (ocean) resources. The Rainier is “one of the most modern and productive survey platforms of its type in the world” and uses multibeam sonar systems to “cover large survey areas in a field season. The ship’s hydrographers acquire and process massive amounts of data and create high-resolution, three-dimensional terrain models of the ocean floor.”  Those models can then be used to identify obstructions and shoals along the bottom of the ocean that are dangerous for navigating ships.  ( Hydro ships, like the Rainier, map the ocean floor to help with safe navigation of the seas. Knowing the depth and make-up of the ocean floor surrounding Alaska will benefit all the vessels and ships, large and small, passing through the Gulf of Alaska. Activities onboard can include echosounding, tide gauge installation, shoreline surveying, verification, and mapping, and data processing.


NOAA ship Rainier, named for Mt. Rainier - a volcanic cone in Washington state that rises 14,410 feet above sea level.  Photo courtesy of NOAA.

NOAA ship Rainier, named for Mt. Rainier – a volcanic cone in Washington state that rises 14,410 feet above sea level. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

So what does all of that mean?? I am about to find out! NOAA’s Teacher at Sea program aims to provide me, the teacher, with real-world research experience through work with world-renowned scientists, to allow unique insights into oceanic and atmospheric research crucial to our world. To this end, I truly believe the best way to learn is by getting ones hands dirty and trying to figure things out. So, on August 16 I will head to Alaska and meet up the Rainier in Kodiak, AK. On August 18 we will depart from Kodiak and head toward Cold Bay to begin our hydrographic survey mission.

Right now, I have more questions than answers: What will it be like without land beneath my feet for three whole weeks? What hours will I work? How am I going to learn all the crew members’ names? Will I get sea sick? What is echosounding? Will I get to go out on a launch? What marine life am I going to see? Will I ever want to leave Alaska? I guess I am about to find out!

For My Students

Can you find out…..?

1. How can I track the distance and speed I am traveling at while on the Rainier? (What units would I use to measure and share this information with you?)

2. When I am on the Rainier, weather information will be shared in degrees Celsius. How can I convert that information to degrees Farenheit so all of my non-science friends can understand?

“Leave a Reply” at the very bottom of this page! I am looking forward to answering (or trying to answer) your questions and sharing this epic learning adventure with you!

And of course, as Will.I.Am wrote and sang, and I kareoked to my students all year, “Reach for the Stars” and you’re sure to end up in the “Hall of Fame!”

Denise Harrington: The Best Day Ever, April 30, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Denise Harrington
Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier
April 20 – May 3, 2014

Mission: Hydrographic Survey

Geographical Area of Cruise: North Coast Kodiak Island

Date:  April 30, 2014, 11:44 a.m.

Location: 58 03.175’ N  127o 153.27.44’ W

Weather from the Bridge: 6.3C (dry bulb), Wind 5 knots @ 250o, clear, 1-2′ swell.

Our current location and weather can also be seen at NOAA Shiptracker:

Science and Technology Log

The last couple of days have been the best ever: beautiful weather, hard work, deep science. We acquired data along the continental shelf and found a cool sea floor canyon and then set benchmarks and tidal gauges.

In hydrography, we gather data in seven steps, by determining: our position on Earth, depth of water, sound speed, tides, attitude (what the boat is doing), imagery and features.  Step 1 is to determine where we are.

In this picture you can see a GOES satellite antenna and a GPS antenna that helps us determine our precise location.

In this picture you can see a GOES satellite antenna (square white one) that is used to transmit tide data ashore and a GPS antenna (the small white eggs shaped one) that provides the tide gauge with both position and UTC time. Photo by Barry Jackson

In this picture  Brandy Geiger, Senior Survey Technician, uses the GOES from various locations to determine the exact location of the tide gauge.

In this picture Brandy Geiger, Senior Survey Technician, uses GPS to record the positions of the benchmarks we have just set for the tide gauge. Photo by Barry Jackson

tide gauge install 023

Where we are happens to be the most beautiful place on earth. Photo by Barry Jackson


In Step 2, we determine the depth of the water below us.

Bathymetry is a cool word that means the study of how deep the water is.  Think “bath” water and metry “measure.”  When your mom tells you to get out of the tub, tell her to wait because you’re doing bathymetry.

As I explained in my first blog, we measure depth by sending out a swath of sound, or “pings,” and count how long it takes for the pings to return to the sonar, which sits beneath the ship or smaller boat.

Yesterday we used the multi-beam sonar to scan the sea floor.  Here is a screen shot of the data we collected.  It looks like a deep canyon, because it is!

Here is the image of the trench Starla Robinson, a Senior Survey Technician, and I discovered.  We decided it should be named Denla Canyon, after us.

Here is the image of the sea floor canyon Starla Robinson, a Senior Survey Technician, and I discovered. We decided it should be named Denla Canyon, after the two scientists who discovered it.

Here I am, gathering pings.

Here I am talking with "the bridge,"  the team responsible for navigating the ship while surveyors collect data.

While collecting data, I kept in contact with “the bridge,” the team responsible for navigating the ship, by radio to ensure the ship’s safety and maximum, quality data acquisition.     Photo by Starla Robinson


Step 3, we take into consideration the tide’s effect on the depth of the water.  Tides are one predictable influence on water depth. There are over 38 factors or “constituents” that influence the tides.  The gravitational pull of the sun and the moon at various times of the day, the tilt of the earth, the topography, and many other factors cause water to predictably bulge in different places on earth at different times. The Rainier crew works 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, so they must find a way to measure depth throughout the days and month, by taking into account the tide. Arthur Doodson, who was profoundly deaf, invented the Doodson Numbers a system taking into account the factors influencing tide in 1921. Flash forward to the 21st century, our Commanding Officer, Commander Rick Brennan worked with a team of NOAA scientists to develop a software program called TCARI, as an alternate method to do tide adjustments, taking into account 38 factors, even the moon’s wobble. Inventions abound at NOAA.

The Rainier crew worked for 14 hours today to set up a tide gauge station, an in depth study of how the tide affects our survey area.  On this map, there is a Red X for each tide gauge we will install.  This process only happens at the beginning of the season, and I feel fortunate to have been here–the work we did was….amazing.


Each Red X is approximately where a tide gauge will be installed.  The one we installed today in Diver's Bay is in the north west corner of the sheet map.

Each Red X is approximately where a tide gauge will be installed. The one we installed today in Driver Bay is in the north west corner of the sheet map.

You can see an animation here that shows the combined effect of two sine waves that produce a signal like our tide data.  Just imagine what it looks like when you factor in 38 different variables.

The earth goes around the sun in 24 hours and moon goes around the earth in a little more than 12 hours, much like these two gray sine waves. Interestingly, when you add two different waves, you get the wonky blue sine wave, with ups and downs. This combined effect of the sun and the moon (two dots) causes the ups and downs of the tide (blue wave). Graph taken from Russell, D. Acoustics and Vibration Animation, PSU,


Low tide is the best time to see sea stars, mussels and barnacles, but it is also a more hazardous time in the tidal cycle for mariners to travel. Therefore, navigational charts use the mean lower low water level, low tide, for the soundings, or depth measurements on a chart.  The black numbers seen on a nautical chart, or soundings, represent depth measurements relative to mean lower low tide. Driver Bay, the area on the chart where we installed the tide gauge today, is the crescent shaped bay at the northwest end of Raspberry Island.

This is a nautical chart used to help mariners navigate safely.

This is a nautical chart used to help mariners navigate safely.

Installing Tide Gauge Stations

Before gathering sonar data, ground and boat crews install a tide gauge to measure changes in water level and to determine the mean lower low water level datum. A tide gauge is a neat device that has air pumped into it, and uses air pressure, to determine how deep the water is.   The tide gauge uses a formula of (density of sea water)(gravity)(height) = pressure.  The gauge measures pressure, and we apply factors for gravity and sea water.  The only missing factor is height, which is what we learn as the gauge collects data.  This formula and nuances for particular locations is a fascinating topic for a blog or master’s thesis.  Scientists are looking for tidal fluctuations and other location specific variances. Then, by computer they determine the mean lower low tide depth, factoring in the tidal fluctuations.

There are permanent tide gauge stations all over the world.  The nearest permanent tide gauge station to our study area is in Kodiak and Seldovia.  These permanent gauges take into account many factors that affect tides over a 19 year period of time, not just the gravitational pull of the moon.

The tide gauge stays in place for at least 28 days (one full tidal cycle).  During the month, data of the tides is collected and can be compared to the other tide gauges we install.

Installing the Tide Gauges and Benchmarks

Excitement built as the crew prepared for the “Tide Party,” packing suitcases full of gear and readying the launches.  Installing Tide Gauges signals the beginning of the season and is one of the few times crew gets paid to go on shore.


Why Bench Mark?

There are three reasons I have figured out after many discussions with patient NOAA crew as to why we put in bench marks.


I installed this benchmark by having a hole drilled in bedrock and affixing the benchmark with concrete if anyone ever returns and needs to know their exact location.

I installed this benchmark in Driver Cove by having a hole drilled in bedrock and affixing the benchmark with concrete if anyone ever returns and needs to know their exact location. Photo by Barry Jackson

The first reason we install benchmarks is to provide a reference framework to ensure both our tide staff and the tide gauge orifice are stable and not moving relative to land.  The second reason is if we ever come back here again to gather or compare data to previous years, we will know the elevation of the tidal datum at this location relative to these benchmarks and can easily install a new tide gauge.  The third reason is that the earth and ocean floor changes constantly.  As scientists, we need to make sure the survey area is “geologically stable.”  We acquire several hours of GPS measurements on the primary benchmark to measure both its horizontal and vertical position relative to the earth’s  reference frame.  Should there ever be an earthquake here, we can come back afterwards and measure that benchmark again and see how much the position of the Earth’s crust has changed.  After the last big earthquake in Alaska, benchmarks were found to move in excess of a meter in some locations!

Teacher on Land Polishing Her Benchmark Photo by Brandy Geiger

Teacher on Land
Polishing Her Benchmark
Photo by Brandy Geiger

Installing the Benchmark

Today, our beach party broke into two groups.  We located stable places, at about 200 foot intervals along the coastline.  We drilled 5 holes on land and filled them with concrete.  A benchmark is a permanent marker you may have seen at landmarks such as a mountain peak or jetty that will remain in place for 100 years or more.  We stamped the benchmark by hand with a hammer and letter stamps with our station identification.   If we chose a good stable spot, the benchmark should remain in the same location as it is now.

Tide Gauge

As one group sets up benchmarks, another group installed the tide gauge.


Here, Chief Jim Jacobson, Lead Survey Technician, sets up a staff, or meter stick, I used to measure the change in water depth and others used for leveling.

Here, Chief Jim Jacobson, Lead Survey Technician, sets up a staff, or meter stick, I used to measure the change in water depth and others used for leveling.  Photo by Barry Jackson

To install the tide gauge, you must have at least three approved divers who install the sensor in deep water so that it is always covered by water.  Because there were only two crew on board trained to dive, Lieutenant Bart Buesseler, who is a dive master, was called in to assist the team.   The dive team secured a sensor below the water.  The sensor measures the water depth with an air pressure valve for at least 28 days.  During this time there is a pump on shore that keeps the tube to the orifice pressurized and a pressure sensor in the gauge that records the pressure. The pressure is equal to the number of feet of sea water vertically above the gauge’s orifice. An on-board data logger records this data and will transmit the data to shore through a satellite antenna.

Divers install the tide gauge, and spent most of the day in the cold Alaska waters.  Good thing they were wearing dive suits!  Photo by Barry Jackson

Divers install the tide gauge, and spent most of the day in the cold Alaska waters. Good thing they were wearing dive suits! Photo by Barry Jackson

Leveling Run

After the gauge and benchmarks are in place, a group does a leveling run to measure the benchmark’s height relative to the staff or meter stick.  One person reads the height difference between 5 different benchmarks and the gauge. Then they go back and measure the height difference a second time to “close” the deal.  They will do the same measurements again at the end of the survey in the fall to make sure the survey area has not changed geographically more than ½ a millimeter in height!  Putting the bubble in the middle of the circle and holding it steady, leveling, was a highlight of my day.


Finally, a person–me– watches the staff (big meter stick above the sensor) and takes measurements of the water level with their eyes every six minutes for three hours.  Meanwhile, the sensor, secured at the orifice to the ocean floor by divers, is also measuring the water level by pressure. The difference between these two numbers is used to determine how far below the water’s surface the orifice has been installed and to relate that distance to the benchmarks we have just leveled to.  If the numbers are consistent, then we know we have reliable measurements.  I won’t find out if they match until tomorrow, but hope they do.  If they don’t match, I’ll have to go back to Driver Bay and try again.

As we finished up the observations, we had a very exciting sunset exit from Raspberry Island.  I was sad to leave such a beautiful place, but glad to have the memories.

Last minute update: word just came back from my supervisor, Ensign J.C. Clark, that my tidal data matches the gauge’s tidal data, which he says is “proof of my awesomeness.” Anyone who can swim with a car battery in tow is pretty awesome in my book too.

The data Starla Robinson and I collected is represented by the red line and the data the gauge collected is represented by the blue line.  The exact measurements we collected are on the table.

The data Starla Robinson and I collected is represented by the red line and the data the gauge collected is represented by the blue line. The exact measurements we collected are on the table.

Spotlight on a Scientist

Lieutenant Bart Buesseler came to us straight from his family home in the Netherlands, and before that from his research vessel, Bay Hydro II.  The main reason our CO asked him to leave his crew in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, and join us on the Rainier is because he is a dive master, capable of installing our sensors under water, and gifted at training junior officers.


Lieutenant Beusseler knows he needs to be particularly nice to  Floyd Pounds, an amazing cook from the south who cooks food from every corner of our ocean planet.

Lieutenant Beusseler knows he needs to be particularly nice to the amazing chefs aboard Rainier, including Floyd Pounds, who cooks food from every corner of our ocean planet with a hint of a southern accent.

During his few years of service, LTJG Buesseler adventured through the Panama Canal, along both coasts of North America, and has done everything from repairing gear to navigating the largest and smallest of NOAA vessels through very narrow straits.  He loves the variety: “if I get tired of one task, I rotate on to another to keep engaged and keep my mind sharp.”  He explains that on a ship, each person is trained to do most tasks.  For example, he says, “during our fast rescue boat training today, Cal led several rotations. But what if he is gone? Everyone needs to be ready to help in a rescue.”  Bart says at NOAA people educate each other, regardless of their assignments, “cultivating information” among themselves. Everyone is skilled at everything aboard Rainier.
In the end, he says that all the things the crew does are with an end goal of making a chart.   His motto? Do what you love to do and that is what he’s doing.

Personal Log

Today was a special day for me for many reasons.  It is majestic here: the stark Alaskan peninsula white against the changing color of the sky, Raspberry Island with its brown, golden, crimson and forest green vegetation, waterfalls and rocky outcroppings.  I’m seeing whales, Puffins, Harlequin Ducks and got up close with the biggest red fox ever.  Most importantly, I felt useful and simultaneously centered myself by doing tide observations, leveling and hiking.  I almost dove through the surf to make it “home” to the ship just in time for a hot shower. Lieutenant Buesseler’s reference to “cultivating information” rings very true to me.  In writing these blogs, there is virtually nothing I came up with independently.  All that I have written is a product of the patient instruction of Rainier crew, especially Commander Brennan. Each day I feel more like I am a member of the NOAA crew here in Alaska.


Denise Harrington: Getting Ready for an Adventure! March 28, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Denise Harrington

Almost Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier
April 6 – April 18, 2014

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical area of cruise: North Kodiak Island
Date: March 28, 2014

My name is Denise Harrington, and I am a second grade teacher at South Prairie Elementary School in Tillamook, Oregon. Our school sits at the base of the coastal mountain range in Oregon, with Coon Creek rup1000004nning past our playground toward the Pacific Ocean. South Prairie School boasts 360 entertaining, amazing second and third grade students and a great cadre of teachers who find ways to integrate science across the curriculum. We have a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) grant that allowed me to meet Teacher at Sea alumni, Katie Sard, who spoke about her adventures aboard NOAA Ship Rainier.  I dreamed about doing something similar, applied, and got accepted into the program and am even on the same ship she was!

In Tillamook, we can’t help but notice how the tidal influence, flooding and erosion affect our land and waters.  Sometimes we can’t get to school because of flood days. The mountainside slips across the road after logging, and the bay fills with silt, making navigation difficult. As a board member for the Tillamook Estuaries Partnership (TEP), I am proud to see scientists at work, collecting data on the changing landscape and water quality.  They work to improve fish passage and riparian enhancement. Working with local scientists and educators, our students have also been able to study their backyard, estuary, bays and oceans.

Now that we have studied the creek by our school, the estuary and Tillamook Bay, with local scientists, it seems to be a logical progression to learn more about our larger community: the west coast of the North American Continent!  I hope the work we have done in our backyard, will prepare students to ask lots of educated questions as I make my journey north on Rainier with scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) north to Alaska.

NOAA has the best and brightest scientists, cutting edge technology and access to the wildest corners of the planet we live on.  And I have got the most amazing assignment: mapping coastal waters of Alaska with the best equipment in the world!   NOAA Ship Rainier is “one of the most modern productive hydrographic survey platforms of its type in the world.”  Rainier can map immense survey areas in one season and produce 3-D charts.  These charts not only help boaters navigate safely, but also help us understand how our ocean floor is changing over time, and to better understand our ocean floor geology and resources, such as fisheries habitat.   Be sure to check out the Rainier link that tells more about the ship and its mission.

Rainier is going to be doing surveys in “some of the most rugged, wild and beautiful places Alaska has to offer,” says the ship’s Commanding Officer CDR Rick Brennan. I am so excited for this, as an educator, bird surveyor, and ocean kayaker. After departing from Newport, Oregon on April 7th, we will be travelling through the Inside Passage of British Columbia, the place many cruise ships go to see beautiful mountains and water routes. I have many more questions than I do answers. What kinds of birds will I see? Will I see whales and mountain peaks? Will the weather cooperate with our travels? Will the crew be willing to bear my insatiable questions?

Once we are through the Inside Passage, we will cross the Gulf of Alaska, which will take 2 ½ days. As we pass my brother’s home on the Kenai River, I will wave to him from the bow of Rainier. Will he see me? I think not. Sometimes I forget how big and wild Alaska is. Then we will arrive on the north side of Kodiak Island where we will prepare for a season of survey work by installing tide gauges.

I always love to listen to students’ predictions of a subject we are about to study. What do I know about tide gauges? Not a lot! Even though I can see the ocean from my kitchen window, I cannot claim to be an oceanographer or hydrographer. I had never even heard the word “hydrographer” until I embarked on this adventure! I predict I will be working with incredibly precise, expensive, complicated tools to measure not just the tide, but also the changes in sea level over time. I am excited to learn more about my neighbor, the ocean, how we measure the movement of the water, and how all that water moving around, and shifting of the earth affects the ocean floor. I am proud to be a member of the team responsible for setting up the study area where scientists will be working and collecting data for an entire season.  It will surely be one of the greatest adventures of my lifetime!


Here are my two favorite travelling companions and children, Martin and Elizabeth.

Here are my two favorite travelling companions and children, Martin and Elizabeth.

In my final days before I embark, I am trying to pick up the many loose ends around the Garibaldi, Oregon home where I live with my dorky, talkative 18 year old son and 16 year old daughter who take after their mother. They share my love of the ocean and adventure. When they aren’t too busy with their friends, they join me surfing, travelling around the world, hiking in the woods, or paddling in our kayaks. Right now, Elizabeth is recovering from getting her tonsils out, but Martin is brainstorming ways to sneak my bright orange 17 foot sea kayak onto Rainier next week. I moonlight as a bird surveyor, have taxes to do and a classroom to clean up before I can depart on April 6. Once Rainier leaves Newport, I will become a NOAA Teacher at Sea, leaving Martin, Elizabeth and my students in the caring hands of my supportive family and co-workers.

Here I am having fun with kayaking friends in California in December.

Here I am having fun with kayaking friends in California in December.


Having gone through the Teacher at Sea pre-service training, I feel more prepared to help the crew, learn about all the jobs within NOAA and develop great lesson plans to bring back to share with fellow educators. I want to bring back stories of scientists working as a team to solve some of our world’s most challenging problems. And I am looking forward to being part of that team!


Susy Ellison, Aaargh Matey, How’s Your Number Sense? September 22, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Susy Ellison
Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier
September 9-26, 2013 

Mission:  Hydrographic Survey
Geographic Area:  Cold Bay, Alaska
Date:  September 22, 2013   

Weather:  current conditions from the bridge
GPS Location: 55o 15.190’ N   162o 38.035’ W
Temp: 8.6C
Wind Speed: 10 kts
Barometer: 1008.3mb
Visibility: 10 miles

You can also go to NOAA’s Shiptracker ( to see where we are and what weather conditions we are experiencing.

If you want a detailed report of weather in our area, check out this link and hover over Cold Bay:   

Science and Technology Log


Why am I sitting here?  What am I looking at?

Why am I sitting here? What’s out there?

 What would you think if you saw someone bundled in warm clothing, sitting in an office chair on a pier with a pair of binoculars, a watch, and a clipboard?  Are they counting waves? Counting birds?  Keeping track of the clouds or the wind speed?  In my case it was ‘none of the above’; I was watching a measuring stick, taking measurements every 6 minutes over a period of 3 hours.  Why would anyone want to sit in a chair on a pier and stare at a stick for 3 hours?

The answer, of course, is science! Now, this wasn’t just any sort of stick.  This tide staff was attached to an automatic tide gauge that the crew of the Rainier installed during their last visit to Cold Bay in August.  That gauge has been recording tidal data that is used during their hydrographic survey work.  But, as with any automatic data-gathering device, it is critical to field check its accuracy, both in measuring and reporting the data.  The gauge measures the depth of the water column at 6-minute intervals, using the pressure of the water column as a proxy for that depth (deeper water exerts a greater pressure on the subsurface opening of the gauge—for a more in-depth explanation, you can check out my blog from September 13th).  My job was to stare at the staff for a period of 1 minute every 6 minutes, and determine both the highest and lowest height of the water lapping at the markings on the stick.

This might sound easy, but it wasn’t quite so simple.  The wind was howling and the waves were bouncing—it took a little practice to make what I hoped was an accurate estimate of both the high mark and the low.  After each observation period I recorded these numbers on a spreadsheet and then spent the next few minutes watching the birds that were flying and landing on the water.  Then—back to the stick!  The tide was dropping with each observation and the winds died down enough to make it a little easier to read the high and low points on each successive 6 minute interval.  By the 10th observation I had it figured out!

NOAA Corps ENS Clark demonstrates proper form for tide gauge observation.

NOAA Corps ENS Clark demonstrates proper form for tide gauge observation.

Picture trying to read this from far away as the water bounces up and down the staff.

Picture trying to read this from far away as the water bounces up and down the staff.

The data I collected was matched against data from the tide gauge for that same time period.  I was pleased to see that my observations matched those of the gauge.  Apparently, both of ‘us’ are good observers of tidal changes.  Now I have one more skill to add to my resume!!

This graph compares my observations with that of the tide gauge.  What do we observe vs. what does a computer measure?

This graph compares my observations with that of the tide gauge. What do we observe vs. what does a computer measure?


It would be hard to find an aspect of life aboard the Rainier that doesn’t involve number sense or math.  This ship’s daily operations run like clockwork; breakfast from 0700-0800, Safety Meeting and deployment of the launches at 0800, lunch from 1130 to 1230, launches return at 1630, dinner from 1700 to 1800, etc.  Pretty simple numbers to deal with, but numbers, nonetheless.

That’s just the start of your applied math tour of the high seas. Maybe you have to figure out how much diesel fuel the ship has onboard.  Since the Rainier uses 20,000-40,000 gallons for each leg of its cruise, it would be pretty horrible to run out before you reached port.  The ship’s tanks can hold around 100,000 gallons of diesel and are usually filled to within 95% of that.  Unlike your car, there’s no fuel gauge on this ship.  So how do you figure out how much fuel is in the tank?  It’s time for some simple, yet essential math. First, you need to know the volume of the fuel tank.   Get out your math books and find that formula.  Then, you take what is called a ‘sounding’—you bang on the tank to determine the level of fuel.  Not too complicated, but certainly a skill that takes some practice.  So, now you know the total volume of the tank as well as the actual height of your fuel; if you figure out the volumes for each and do some subtraction, you can find out what percentage of your total fuel is still in the tank.

We might all be better at determining volume and percent if we had images of a fuel tank on the dashboards of our cars instead of a linear gauge reading ‘E’ to ‘F’! What about drinking water?  The Rainier uses a distillation system to create fresh water from seawater.  There are tanks down in the engine room where seawater is heated to the boiling point.  There’s a little more math and science in this process—the pressure in the distillation tank is lowered, to lower the boiling point (if you’ve ever camped at a high elevation you might notice that water boils at a lower temperature—your tea might not be quite as hot when it’s boiling) so the water doesn’t have to be heated quite so much to get it to boil.  This steam is captured in the upper portion of the distiller and cooled using cold seawater that flows through pipes.  The condensation from cooling is captured, filtered to remove any impurities, and distributed as fresh water to all onboard.  The ship uses around 2500 gallons of water each day.

Here's where all our fresh water is produced.  This distiller takes in seawater and, through boiling and condensation, produces fresh water.

Here’s where all our fresh water is produced. This distiller takes in seawater and, through boiling and condensation, produces fresh water.

If you’re running the galley it’s essential to calculate how much food you’ll need for each leg of the trip.  No one wants to do without their morning eggs if your multiplication is off and you ‘forget’ to buy a few dozen.  Taking a recipe that is designed to feed 8 people and ‘upsizing’ it for 48 people takes a bit of mathematical manipulation.  Just planning a menu for a three-week journey takes some mathematical thinking as you visualize the weeks, days, meals, and individual ingredients needed for those meals.  You have to factor in a few variables; which foods have the longest shelf life, when do you have to switch from fresh to frozen or to canned foods, how much food does the ‘average’ person eat, and what about all those people with food allergies or preferences?  While this might not sound quite as earth-shattering as using a detailed computer program to concatenate multiple data files, this is math that counts—especially when you’re feeding a boatload of hungry crew.

This is a glimpse of some of the supplies stored on the ship.

This is a glimpse of some of the supplies stored on the ship.

Don't forget to buy enough fruit and vegies!

Don’t forget to buy enough fruit and vegies!

Hmmm, what's in the freezer?

Hmmm, what’s in the freezer?

So now it’s time to consider the math used to pilot the ship.  Think about degrees in a compass bearing and the need to do some rapid mental math as you’re steering a 231-foot ship through some very tight spaces.  Quick—take a course of 340o, now look ahead and get ready to change your bearing to 28oRainier’s draft (how deep it sits in the water) is around 16’.  Will the channel be deep enough?  What if you’re traveling in a supertanker, one that might be over 400’ in diameter and have a draft up to 80’ deep?  If your ship is that big, you need to scale up on your mental math calculations as you’re searching out appropriate harbors and routes! What about tying up the ship when we’re in harbor? Did you remember to learn something about vectors before you stopped taking math classes?

When we were at port in Cold Bay, the winds were expected to increase in strength and to shift so that they would be coming out of the west.  Since the pier was oriented perpendicular to the predicted wind direction, our Chief Bo’ sun, Jim Kruger had to do some mental calculations of the angles needed to secure the ship to the pier and keep it from bouncing too much.  He doubled and even tripled some of the lines, taking into account how the winds might move the ship as well as the strength of each line.  It takes some stout lines to hold this ship; each 300 ft. line is 1” in diameter and has a tensile (breaking) strength of 164,000 lbs.    Vector angles were equally important as we pulled away from the pier in a 50-knot wind.  Just pulling up our gangway with a crane required some careful mental calculations of where to place lines to steady it as it rose through the air and was lifted onboard. If your mental math and visualization skills were wrong, you might be rewarded with a wildly swinging piece of metal.

Double (and triple) up the lines holding the ship to the pier.  Make sure the angles are right.

Double (and triple) up the lines holding the ship to the pier. Make sure the angles are right.

Hang tight to the gangway as it swings onboard.  Make sure you're holding it at the correct angle to compensate for the wind.

Hang tight to the gangway as it swings onboard. Make sure you’re holding it at the correct angle to compensate for the wind.

Strong winds--this digital anemometer records current wind speed in knots as well as the highest gust.

Strong winds–this digital anemometer records current wind speed in knots as well as the highest gust.

How about all that hydrographic data collection; there’s plenty of opportunity there for some pretty extreme mathematical calculations.  You might even wish you had taken a class in calculus—or a few classes!  But there are also plenty of times that some basic number sense and arithmetic come in mighty handy.  As I sat on the pier watching the tide gauge, one of the tasks I had to do was to calculate the average between high and low water marks on the tide staff.  Not such hard math, but it’s a good skill to be able to do averages in your head while your hands are getting cold and the wind is howling.  The tide gauge calculations were referenced to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). This has been our world standard since 1972, and is referenced to the 0o meridian at Greenwich, England.  It is precisely measured using an atomic clock.  You might also hear it referred to as Zulu Time.  Even airplanes use this time designation.  This way, there is no ambiguity about whether you are in daylight savings or standard time, or your time zone.  When measuring tides or collecting information about water chemistry using the CTD, or calculating the launch’s daily gyrations, it is important to reference everything to the same time standard.  Since the Rainier is on RST (Rainier Standard Time), the calculation gets even more important because we are in the Alaska time zone, but have set our clocks back one more hour to give us more daylight working hours).

What's your time zone?  GMT stands for Greenwich Mean Time.  It is also the UTC time standard we use.

What’s your time zone? GMT stands for Greenwich Mean Time. It is also the UTC time standard we use.

Just in case your brain hasn’t been addled by all this talk of mathematics, there’s one more concept that might come in handy here on the high seas—a sine wave.  Huh?  Sine waves are a mathematical curve describing smooth repetitive oscillations.  Like…tides, sonar pulses, sunrise/sunset observations, or the music booming out of your iPod.

Tide charts show a predictable, repeatable sine wave pattern.

Tide charts show a predictable, repeatable sine wave pattern.

I even use math to calculate how long I should run on the elliptical trainer down in the ship’s exercise space.  If I set the resistance to 8, and use a cross training setting, it takes around 35 minutes to ‘run’ the equivalent of one slice of cake!

Here's some of the exercise equipment on the ship.

Here’s some of the exercise equipment on the ship.

35 minutes or one slice of pie--whichever comes first!

35 minutes or one slice of pie–whichever comes first!

Just in case you haven’t gotten the message—math is good.  Number sense is critical—even if you want to run off to sea!

Personal Log


The entire Cold Bay School fits into this truck!

The entire Cold Bay School fits into this truck!

I love a field trip.  There’s nothing like loading up in the bus and taking off in search of the great unknown.  While we were parked at the Cold Bay pier, we had a visit from the Cold Bay School.  The 8 students, plus their teacher and a classroom aide, came to check out the Rainier.  CO Rick Brennan gave them a tour, starting at the bridge, and ending with lunch in the wardroom.  Along the way, they learned about ships and ship life, NOAA, and the science of hydrography. Lunch was a real hit, since the kids all bring their own lunches to school.  Who wouldn’t like halibut tacos with all the fixings from the galley, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich handmade by Commander Rick Brennan with a fresh cookie for dessert?

Cold Bay students check out some of the ship's BIG tools.

Cold Bay students check out some of the ship’s BIG tools.

I tagged along on the tour to talk with some of the kids and their teacher and to compare notes about schools.  While I always think of my school as small, with only 150 students, the school in Cold Bay is really small.  There are 8 students and they represent grades 1 through 7.  While the school is small, each student uses an iPad to access a wide variety of educational resources. It’s even better when that technology-based learning is supplemented by some hands-on field trip-based learning.  This was their second field trip of the week; they had spent a day with a wildlife biologist helping install a motion-sensitive camera in the Izembek Wildlife Refuge (

Future hydrographers head back to school.

Future hydrographers head back to school.


Where I live, in Colorado, we occasionally get snow days, when the roads are too dangerous to transport children to school.  Here at sea, we don’t worry too much about snow, but wind can create hazardous working conditions.  Yesterday we had what I would call a ‘Wind Day’; none of the survey launches went out.  The winds were gusting up to 50 knots, and were fairly steady at 30 knots.  That’s windy.  The surface of the bay was a froth of water, waves, and whitecaps.  Even the Black-legged Kittiwakes were having trouble flying!

Whitecaps all across the bay.  Definitely NOT a day to survey the sea floor.

Whitecaps all across the bay. Definitely NOT a day to survey the sea floor.

Certainly not the sort of day where you want to send out teams of hydrographers in 28 foot long launches.  While safety is paramount, data quality also suffers in such ‘bouncy’ seas.  As the launch bounces from side to side or from front to back, the sonar sends its pings far afield.  It becomes difficult or impossible to drive straight, overlapping lines as you ‘mow the lawn’ through your polygon (Wait, there’s another math term!) , and turning the craft requires timing and skill as you move through the rolling seas.  As the Rainier nears the end of its time at sea and in Cold Bay, each day becomes critical to achieve its charting goals—but there’s plenty of work to do on board on a day like this.  


Katie Sard: Setting up for Survey, August 4, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Katie Sard
Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier
July 29 – August 15, 2013

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area of the Cruise: Shumagin Islands, Alaska
Date: August 1-4, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge:
GPS location: 55°02.642’N, 159°57.359’W
Sky condition:  Overcast (OVC)
Visibility: 7 nm
Wind: 180° true, 8 kts
Water temperature: 8.3°C
Air temperature:  12.0 °C

Science and Technology Log

In my last post I talked mostly about the science needed for safely navigating the ship to our survey area in the Shumagin Islands.  Now that the surveying has begun, I’d like to use this post to talk about the actual logistics of the surveys that are being completed.  These surveys are the reason that we are in Alaska, and it takes quite a bit of planning and coordination to make sure that accurate data is collected.  The hydrographers are looking for features to put on the chart (map) such as depth, rocks, shoals, ledges, shipwrecks, islets (small islands), and kelp beds.

One of the massive kelp beds that we recorded while out on a survey launch.

One of the massive kelp beds that we recorded while out on a survey launch.

The last time most of this area was surveyed was back in the early 1900s.  Lead lines were used in order to gather data about the depth of the sea.  While accurate, this method only gave information on discrete points along the ocean floor.  This resulted in charts being left with large amounts of white space which represents areas that have never before been surveyed.

You can see the sea depth measurements on this chart are in a neat line where I've highlighted in red.  These are the lead line measurements that were taken in the early 1900s.

You can see the sea depth measurements on this chart are in a neat line where I’ve highlighted in red. These are the lead line measurements that were taken in the early 1900s. You can also see the large amounts of white space that haven’t yet been charted.

Here is a comparison of the type of data that would be gathered from a lead line versus multi-beam sonar. (Credit

The sonar technology on the ship allows us to gather data which can be classified as full-bottom coverage.  That means that we have data on every inch of ocean floor that we cover rather than just one point along the way.

Now let’s get to the heart of survey!  The overall survey area here in the Shumagins is broken down into what the team refers to as sheets.  The Commanding Officer (CO) informed me that the reason they call them “sheets” is because back before the use of computers in surveying, hydrography would be done on a small boat and all the positions would be hand-plotted on a sheet of fine cotton paper.  The size of this “sheet” of paper and the scale of the survey dictated how big the survey would be. Anyways, each sheet has a sheet manager that is responsible for the data collected in that area.  Each sheet is then broken down even further into several polygons which represent specific areas to be surveyed on that sheet.  Meghan McGovern, the Field Operations Officer (FOO) on this ship, explained to me that while the ship itself is running sonar to collect data 24 hours a day only two launches can be sent out at a time to do additional surveys.  This is because the ship does not have the manpower to run the entire ship plus all four small survey launches.  However, it is hard on the crew to run continuous 24 hour operations on the ship, so every so often the ship will anchor and four survey launches can be sent out to gather data during the day.  I asked which method is preferred and Megan told me that it really depends on the area that needs to be surveyed.  Sometimes it can be more beneficial to anchor and send out all four launches if a lot of data needs to be collected on areas close to the shore.  In that case, the ship is not able to navigate as closely to the shoreline as the small launches are.

Before the launches can be sent out to gather data close to shorelines, benchmarks must be set and tidal gauges must be taken in order to measure the actual water level based on the varying tides.  This has not been done during my time in the Shumagins because they were done on the previous leg.  (For more information visit TAS Marvin’s blog to understand how she helped set-up benchmarks in the Shumagins.) Shoreline verification must also be completed by the small skiff (boat) in order to visually mark any dangers that may be hazardous to the launches while they are surveying.  I am hoping to do shoreline verification while I am here, but for now this area has already been done.

This shows several rocks that would need to be noted through shoreline  verification before sending the launches out.

This shows several rocks that would need to be noted through shoreline verification before sending the launches out.

To the left of Chernabura Island you can see the two polygons (V and X)  we were responsible for surveying.

To the left of Chernabura Island you can see the two polygons (V and X) we were responsible for surveying.

After the shoreline verification has taken place the actual data collection can begin.  I have been out in a launch two times since we reached our survey area.  The first time we were surveying polygons V (Victor) and X (X-ray) on the west coast of Chernabura Island.  I learned a great deal from the crew about the survey system on the small launch.  While I was on this launch I was allowed to drive.  It turns out it is hard to drive a boat in a nice, neat line.  Yesterday I was able to go out for a second time on a survey launch, and this time we collected near shore data on the east side of Near Island.

You can see the highlighted area was clearly marked on the boat sheet as "TAS Driven" to indicate to the hydrographer why the lines weren't exactly straight!

You can see the highlighted area was clearly marked as “TAS Driven” to indicate to the hydrographer why the lines weren’t exactly straight!

The launch runs a system that is very similar to the ship in order to collect bathymetric data.  The screen, that is projected to the Hydrographer in Charge (HIC) and the coxswain (driver), shows a swath of the area where data has been collected.

Here is what the HIC and the coxswain see as the data is being gathered.  Notice the red arrow I've inserted to show the "colored in" areas that represent where the data has been collected.

Here is what the HIC and the coxswain see as the data is being gathered. Notice the red arrow I’ve inserted to show the “colored in” areas that represent where the data has been collected.

On the screen it looks as though the ship is driving back and forth coloring in the lines as data is collected.  Once all of the data has been collected on the launch, it is saved to an external hard drive and brought back to the ship for night processing.  I haven’t observed night processing yet, but I plan to do that in the upcoming days.

I will hold off on more detail now and wait until next time to give you the science behind the detailed sonar that is being used during these surveys.

Personal Log

Yesterday was one of my favorite days on my adventure so far.  I went with three other people on one of the small launches called the RA-6.  While I was on the launch I had the responsibility of doing the radio communication back to the ship for a check-in each hour to let them know our position and what we had accomplished up to that point.  The sun was peeking through the clouds, and I was finally able to see the majestic islands that are surrounding us.  These islands have no trees, but their sharp cliffs and the mystical lenticular clouds that hovered above them captured my attention each time we drove close.

The lenticular clouds forming over the land near where we were surveying.

The lenticular clouds forming over the land near where we were surveying.

The birds out here are the only animals that can be observed and they include gulls, muirs, and puffins.  Each time we drove near a puffin I couldn’t help but laugh as they scuttled quickly away in the water.  Some of them seemed to have eaten too many fish to be able to lift themselves into the air.

My free time on the ship has been mostly spent at meals and in the wardroom.  Each night the ship shows three different movies that run on the cable channels throughout the ship, and a mix of people tend to gather in the wardroom to sit and watch the shows together.  I have also had the unique experience of using the elliptical machine several times while on board.

This is the wardroom where I watch movies with various crew members some evenings.

This is the wardroom where I watch movies with various crew members some evenings.

If you have ever used an elliptical machine, you know that normally when you step off the machine it feels like you are still in motion.  Add that feeling to the swaying of the ship and it makes for a strange type of vertigo!

The ship even has a small "gym" where the crew can work out while out at sea.

The ship even has a small “gym” where the crew can work out while out at sea.

Laura McCrum, a past student of mine, told me in a recent email to remember that knowledge is not confined to age…and she made sure to clarify that she wasn’t calling me old!  I am so grateful for this unique experience where I am able to continue my education each and every day in order to expand my knowledge base.  I hope that this experience will not only benefit me but also my students, coworkers, and community members as well.

Just Another Day at the Office

I wanted to start this section of my blog as a way to highlight a different member of the crew during each post.  These people go to work each day in such a unique environment that I thought it was important to share a piece of their stories.

Carl VerPlanck, 3rd Mate

The first time I saw Carl was on the bridge while the ship was departing from port.  He is the navigation officer responsible for creating routes, updating charts and publications, and maintaining a certain decorum on the bridge.  Carl also helps to train junior officers in the art of navigation.  He conducts underway watches and drives the launches while helping to train others to do the same.

Carl VerPlanck

Carl VerPlanck

When asked about how he got to be in the position that he holds today, Carl told me that he grew up in Indiana and received his GED when he was 18 before moving to Alaska to work on a fishing boat.  Having no prior experience on boats, he worked in a fish processing plant in Naknek, Alaska until he was able to start as a General Vessel Assistant (GVA) with NOAA.  He eventually worked his way up the rank as an Ordinary Seaman (OS), followed by an Able-bodied Seaman (AB) until he received his 3rd Mate certification.  He currently holds his 2nd Mate certification, and he plans to hold this position in the future.

While I was talking with him, Carl told me that the best part about his job was that he loves working in Alaska.  He has a sense of exploration while doing these surveys, and he likes the feeling that anything could be down there on the sea floor.  I asked him to share the advice that he would give a young person trying to break into the field of an ocean related career and he said that you shouldn’t be afraid to broaden the scope of what you might be good at or what your interests are.  Never miss a chance to take hold of an opportunity, and don’t be afraid to consider a non-traditional pathway.

I ended our conversation by asking Carl what he would be doing if he wasn’t currently working for NOAA, and he said he was sure he would still be in the maritime community in some way.  Besides working for NOAA I found out that Carl enjoys taking flying lessons and he is currently working toward getting his pilot’s license.  He has a home in Seattle where he lives, when not underway, with his wife and his 1 1/2 year old son.

Your Questions Answered!

I love getting questions via comments and emails, and so I wanted to do these questions justice by providing prompt answers.  So here we go…

My first question was from Kirsten Buckmaster, a fellow teacher at INMS.  She asked me if I have any specific duties from day to day on the ship.  As a Teacher at Sea it is really up to me to insert myself into the everyday schedule of the ship.  The Field Operations Officer (FOO) and the Commanding Officer (CO) sat down with me at the start of the leg and asked me what I was interested in doing while on board, and I told them that I was eager to do a little bit of everything.  Each day the FOO posts the Plan of the Day (POD), and this tells you what specific tasks are going to be done for the day.  Each day I look for my name on the POD to understand if I have any specific responsibilities.  Some days it is up to me to go observe on the bridge or in the plot room.  I am hoping to help with the deck department before my time is over, as well as try to better understand what the engineers do.

Plan of the Day (POD) for Saturday.  If you look to the left you can see my name under RA-6.

Plan of the Day (POD) for Saturday. If you look to the left you can see my name under RA-6.

Next I had a question from one of my students Mr. Zachary Doyle.  Zach asked me if I was getting seasick.  Luckily, it turns out that I am not prone to sea sickness…yet.  The POD gives the weather forecast, and the FOO makes sure to let the crew know if we are going to have any inclement weather.  If I know the ship is going to be rockin’ and rollin’ I will take Dramamine which helps to prevent sea sickness.  Also, the launches get shaken around a bit more so if I know I’m going out on a launch I will take some medicine the night before just in case.

Finally, my grandmother-in-law Liz Montagna asked me about the waves.  I’ve learned out here that we need to be aware of two important things: sea wave height and swells.  In simple terms, a swell is a wave that is not generated by the local wind.  They are regular, longer period waves generated by distant weather systems.  The wave height can be measured from the waves caused by the wind in the area where they are created.  Luckily we haven’t had waves breaking on the deck.  Liz also asked about who does the housekeeping.  In my stateroom the answer is my roommate and I.  We are responsible for keeping our living quarters neat and tidy.  The deck department is mostly in charge of the rest of the ship.  Each day I have met people in the passageways (halls) sweeping, mopping, and doing other necessary tasks to keep the ship looking good.

I love questions so please keep them coming!  Remember you can post a comment/question on the blog or email me at .

All is well in Alaska!

TAS Sard

Did You Know…

I didn’t know how the Shumagin Islands got their name so I did some investigating.  It turns out that Vitus Bering was the man who led an expedition to the islands in 1741.  Nikita Shumagin was one of the sailors on this mission, but he unfortunately died of scurvy and was buried on Nagai Island.

Rosalind Echols: Is it an Island or Just an Ink Blot? July 16, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Rosalind Echols
Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier (NOAA Ship Tracker)
July 8 — 25, 2013 

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Shumagin Islands, Alaska
Date: July 16, 2013

Current Location: 54° 55.8’ N, 160° 09.5’ W

Weather on board: Overcast skies with a visibility of .5 nautical miles, South wind at 18 knots, Air temperature: 10°C, Sea temperature: 7.2°C, 1-2 foot swell

Science and Technology log: Shoreline Verification

When you think of a shoreline, you might think of a straight or curved “edge” made of sandy beaches that gradually retreat into deeper and deeper water.  In the Shumagin Islands, a sandy cove is a rare occurrence and a place for a beach party! Towering, jagged cliffs patched with Artic moss and blanketed by a creeping fog are the typical “edges” here.  Below the cliffs, in the water, lie sporadic toothed rocks and beds of dense rooted bull kelp, swaying with the current. As I sit on the edge of the skiff (small dinghy-like boat), which gently trudges along the outside of the protruding rocks, I think to myself how this place evokes an ethereal mood and you really feel like you are in one of the most remote places in the world.

Rocky shoreline of Nagai Island

Rocky shoreline of Nagai Island

Navigating through Bull Kelp bed

Navigating around Bull Kelp bed

Picture of skiff offshore

Picture of skiff offshore

Remote it is and that is why we are here. These are, for the most part, uncharted or poorly documented waters and shorelines and in this post, I am going to talk about the shoreline aspect.  Besides taking bathymetric data (depth data), hydrographic ships like the Rainier must also verify that the shorelines of various land-masses are portrayed accurately and that all necessary “features” are documented correctly on nautical charts.  Features include anything that might be a navigational hazard such as rocks, shoals, ledges, shipwrecks, islets (small islands) and kelp beds. For shoreline verification, a 19 foot skiff is used for maneuverability and shallow water access. This boat will go out during the “shoreline window”, when the tide is the lowest, with the hopes that if there is a dangerous feature present, it will be visible above the water. In the best case scenario, we can investigate the shoreline fully with the skiff before sending in the bigger launches to survey the area with the sonar, so that we know they won’t hit anything.

Shoreline verification crew hard at work

Shoreline verification crew hard at work. From left: Randy (Coxswain), John (NOAA Corps. Officer), Chief Jacobson (Chief Survey Tech), Steve (NOAA Corps. Officer)

Rosalind in skiff.

Rosalind all bundled up for a day out in the skiff looking for rocks, kelp, and of course, wildlife.

The main goal of the scientists aboard the skiff is to establish a “navigational area limit line” (NALL). This is a boundary line delineating how far off shore the launch boats should remain when they are surveying.  This boundary line is obtained in one of three ways:

1) presence of a navigational hazard such as a dense kelp bed or several protruding rocks

2) a depth of 4 meters

3) distance of 64 meters to shore

Whichever of these is reached first by the skiff will be the navigational area limit line for the launches.  Here in the Shumagins, kelp beds and rocks have been the boundary line determinant and often these hazards are in water that is deeper than 4 meters because we have been encountering these before we get within 64 meters of the shoreline.

While scientists are determining the NALL, they are also verifying if certain features portrayed on older charts are in fact present and in the correct location. Using navigational software on a waterproof Panasonic Toughbook, they bring up a digitized version of the old chart of a specific survey area. This chart depicts features using various symbols (asterisk=rock above water, small circle=islet). This software also overlays the boat’s movement on top of the old chart, allowing the boat to navigate directly to or above the feature in question.

Shoreline map 1

Shoreline map showing course of skiff, shoreline buffer, and feature for examination.

Shoreline map 2

Shoreline map showing charted location of islet and the actual location of islet determined by the skiff.

If the feature is not visually seen by the human eye or the single beam sonar on the skiff, it will be “disproved” and a picture and depth measurement will be taken of the “blank” location. If the feature IS seen, more data will be recorded (height of feature above the water, time of day observed, picture) to document its existence.  This same verification procedure is used for newfound features that are not present on the old charts.  All of this data is written on a paper copy of the chart and then back in the “dry lab”(computer lab), these hand-written notes are transferred to a digital copy of the chart.

Section of shoreline showing data and notes about specific features in question

Section of shoreline showing data and notes about specific features in question

Digitized version of notes and data taken at field site Note: Kelp buffer are the large shaded red areas and the smaller red circle is the actual position of the islet

Digitized version of notes and data taken at field site. The black box corresponds to the area from the previous picture above.
Note: Kelp buffers are the large shaded red areas and the smaller red circle is the actual position of the islet. The three southernmost rocks (marked by red asterisks) inside the black box were disproved.

On the two shoreline verification adventures I went on, many rocks and islets were disproved and several new features were found. Most of the new features were rocks, islets or large kelp beds.  It is important to note that if scientists find a new feature which is a serious present navigational hazard (ex. Shipwreck, huge jutting rock or shoal far offshore) it will be marked a DTON (Danger to Navigation) and communicated to mariners within a short time frame. Other less significant features take 1-2 years to appear on updated nautical charts.

For some survey areas, the Rainier uses aircraft-acquired LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) to get an initial idea of various features and water depths of a shoreline area. (This is a service that is contracted out by NOAA.) LiDAR data is obtained by a plane flying over an area at 120 mph, emitting laser beams to the water below. Like SONAR, LiDAR measures the time it takes for the laser beam to return to its starting point. Using this measured time and the speed of light, the distance the light traveled can be obtained, using the equation distance = speed*time, accounting for the fact that it travels through air and then water.  Because light travels much faster than sound, the plane can travel significantly faster than a boat and a large area can be surveyed faster.  Unfortunately LiDAR can only be used in clear, calm water because light is easily reflected by various solids (silt in the water, floating wood), specific color wavelengths (ex. White foam on ocean surface) and absorbed by biological specimens for photosynthesis (ex. Surface bull kelp).  LiDAR surveys do reduce the time hydrographers spend at a shoreline site thus increasing the safety and efficiency of an operation.  As with any data acquisition method, it must be cross-checked by another method and in this case because of the obvious downsides, it is used as a guide to shoreline verification.

Map of island showing LIDAR data.

Map of island showing LiDAR data. The skiff does shoreline verification outside the orange line that outlines the island. Everything inside this orange island was surveyed by the LIDAR airplane. The three orange features circled in red on the southeast section of the island, need to be re-surveyed by the skiff. Different colors show various depths. (Green is more shallow than light blue.)

After spending several days “disproving” a lot of rocks and islets that were clearly not present in their identified location, we started to wonder why someone would have thought there was a specific feature there. One possibility is that it was just an ink blot on the original chart, made by accident (from a fountain pen), and then interpreted as a rock or islet in the process of digitizing the chart. It’s better to be safe than shipwrecked! Another possibility is that these features were “eyeballed” in their documented location, and thus were present but just in the wrong spot.  Lastly because of limitations previously mentioned, LiDAR occasionally mis-reports features that are not present. Fortunately, our current survey methods use sophisticated navigational technology and several cross-checks to minimize data errors.

Shoreline arch.

Arch carved in shoreline by gradual erosion from waves.

After shoreline verification has been completed, launches can survey the ocean floor (using SONAR) outside the boundary (NALL) that was established by the skiff. Each launch will be in charge of surveying specific polygons (labeled by letters and names). The picture above shows the polygon areas which are outlined in light orange (most are rectangles). I will talk more about SONAR and surveying on the launch in my next post. :)

Personal log:

During a rare break from the hustle and bustle of work and ship life, I joined several other people on an expedition to the beach to do some exploring and beach-combing on Bird Island. We initially tried to hike up and over one of the saddles on the island to reach a beach on the other side that was more exposed and thus might have had more items washed up, but after 30 minutes of hiking, we had only just reached the top of the saddle, which included a lake with a noisy flock of white birds on it, mostly hidden in the fog. Although it was a bit disappointing not to reach the other side, hiking on the tundra was a fascinating experience. Aside from the mist-shroud, which has been with us for the past few days, walking on the tundra itself was unlike anything else I have experienced. The spring bed of mosses, shrubs, and small flowers make every step feel like two, but should you chance to fall down, it is an incredibly comfortable landing. An ideal place for a nap, as long as it is not wet. Overall, between my less-than-graceful shoreline-to-skiff entrance, scrambling uphill through waste-high damp grass, exploring the coastline, which really looked more like a sea urchin graveyard, and getting to know some of my fellow shipmates better, it was a truly delightful outing.

Tundra wildflowers

Some of the flowers we saw on our hike on the tundra.

Aside from occasional excursions like this, we are generally on the ship or a launch 24 hours a day, which means that crew members have to be creative about getting exercise. Underneath the “fantail” (the outside deck at the stern of the ship), there is a small space that has been converted into a workout room, complete with treadmill, elliptical, exercise bike, and a sizable collection of weights. There is a group of crew members who have a sort of weight-lifting club, under the guidance of the third mate; one crew member likes to jump rope on the fantail so she has a good view for her exercise, and a number of people are intrepid enough to use the treadmill. I have now experimented with running a few times, and can only say that running on a treadmill on a rocking ship, even an ever-so-gently-rocking one, adds a new and exciting element to the treadmill that is sadly lacking in your typical gym.

Did you know?

The ship can rock in two different directions with the seas. When it is rocking forward and backward, it’s called pitch. When it’s rocking side-to-side, it’s called roll. The whole treadmill experience is quite different depending on whether the ship is pitching or rolling, but I always keep one hand on the bar for extra stability.