Julia West: It’s the Small Things in Life… March 20, 2015

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

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 20, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge, 0800, 3/20/15
Temperature: 25.5°C (78°F)
Wind direction: 90° (E)
Wind speed: 6 knots
Sky condition: cumulus (cu), 15% cloud cover


Sunrise, Gulf of Mexico

Sunrise on our first morning at sea – a nice way to start a new adventure!

I’m really excited to see everyone commenting and asking questions, and I hope I do a good job answering them. If you don’t get your answer right away, remember that I am learning too! I will be answering lots of them in the blog posts, and others in the comments, and hopefully I’ll get to most or all of them! The internet out here is marginal at best, so when the satellite connection is good, I try to run with it. That’s why there might be gaps in our communication.

Science and Technology Log

If you haven’t guessed by now, there are several methods of sampling plankton. Each one is used several times a day, when we get to one of the sampling stations. Since the whole point of these research cruises are… well… doing research, it is fascinating to see the communication between the scientists and the NOAA Corps crew who run the ship. At the beginning of the cruise, Pam, the FPC (Field Party Chief, or chief scientist), discussed the stations we need to get to with LT Marc Weekley, the operations officer (OPS), and ENS Dave Wang, the navigations officer (NAV). Together they made a plan. Some of the decision is based on weather; for example, in the first leg of the cruise, which ended just before I got here, there was bad weather coming in, so they decided to work south, to skirt most of the weather coming from the northwest, and then work back northward. Here is a map of the entire sampling area:

winter plankton sampling stations

These are the winter plankton sampling stations. Most of the stations to the east of Pascagoula were covered in the previous leg of the research cruise. The dots are about 30 miles apart. The light solid lines show the edge of the continental shelf and the dotted line is the edge of U.S. waters. Credit: Pamela Bond/NOAA

On our leg, we are doing a little zigzagging south, and then will be zigzagging west all the way toward Texas. There is constant communication between the officers on the bridge, the scientists in the lab, and the deck crew, especially as we get toward the sampling station. There is a navigation chart on the monitor on the bridge, and a video feed of the chart to the lab and every TV monitor on the ship, so everyone knows exactly where we are and how close we are to the next station. There are also closed circuit video cameras in various places around the boat that can be viewed on the lab and bridge monitors. The scientists and crew can see everything that is going on as equipment gets deployed over the side. The bridge has to give the OK for anything to be deployed or recovered, even a plankton net.

Our plankton sampling stations

These are the stations we are sampling. The X’s are stations we have completed as of early on 3/20, and the lines that connect the dots are how we have traveled.

There’s also a camera on the bow of the boat, looking down at the water. With that camera you can sometimes see dolphins “bow surfing.” The bow of the boat pushes a wave ahead of it, something you’ve probably seen if you’ve been in any boat with a motor. Imagine a permanent, amazing surfing wave – one that you can ride for miles! If you fall off the wave, just a few tail strokes and you’re back on it. That’s life as a dolphin!

OK, now back to plankton:

Today I want to introduce CUFES, or “Continuous Underwater Fish Egg Sampler.” This unit is pumping in seawater continuously, agitating it to funnel any plankton and fish eggs into the collecting device. This device was first used on the west coast, where the fish eggs are larger. Here in the Gulf, eggs are very, very small, and not the priority, so the CUFES is used to collect whatever plankton are pulled into it. The intake is 3 meters below the surface.


This is the CUFES. The blue thing near the top is the agitator, and it creates a foam layer that you can see below it.

The water is agitated, and then funneled into a sieve. The water is piped right back into the ocean, and the plankton collect on the sieve. Every 30 minutes (yes, they have a timer), the sieve is removed, and the sample is rinsed and transferred to a small bottle. The bottle is filled with ethanol as a preservative. This sampling method provides a continuous record of plankton, in contrast to the isolated stations that are used for the rest of the sampling, which are about 30 miles apart. In addition, the ship has another device that continuously records temperature and salinity. This unit is called the……..wait for it……. thermosalinograph! Every 30 minutes, when the CUFES sample is taken, the minimum, maximum, and average temperature and salinity for that half hour gets imported right into the CUFES “event” (the computer data sheet). Also recorded are the start and end positions of the ship, as well as the water depth. There is no shortage of data, and this is just one of the plankton sampling methods!

CUFES sieve

The water then gets funneled into this sieve, where the plankton collect.


Chrissy and the CUFES

Here is Chrissy in the “wet lab,” ready to stop the water flow to the sieve, so she can collect the sample.


Andy and CUFES

Andy is collecting the sample, picking any stragglers from the sieve with tweezers.

Personal Log

Now that I’ve been on the ship for 3 days, life is falling into a routine. The scientists work 12 hour shifts – noon to midnight, and midnight to noon. There are two scientists on each shift, and Pam works long days overseeing both shifts. Chrissy, pictured above, is one of the midnight-noon workers. I wasn’t required to stand a particular shift; I float between both shifts as well, so I can work with everyone and get to know them all. Also, this way I don’t have to ask the same questions over and over again to the same people – I can spread out my repetition and drive them all less crazy! I’m kidding, because they are all incredibly patient. One thing about scientists is that they invite questions. Science is all about questions. And you can bet I’ve asked a few that had them scratching their head a bit, but we always find the answers!

More about the ship – you can find out a lot on the Gordon Gunter’s web page. That’s where I go to find out when meal times are! The ship is 224′ long. My stateroom is on the port side of the 01 deck (the first deck with windows that you can walk around, if you’re looking at the picture), toward the forward end. Above that is the 02 deck, which has a smaller interior. The 02 deck is where the life rafts are kept. Above that is the bridge deck, smaller still, but fun to be up there at the control center of the ship’s world! And the very top is the fly bridge – a cool place to hang out and see far and wide. Below the 01 deck is the main deck (also known as 1 deck), where the galley (mess deck) and lounges are. Below that is the 2 deck, where the engine and generators are, as well as the laundry room and a gym. This is the heart of the ship.

Johns on the bridge

ENS Kristin Johns at the controls on the bridge

One last picture (next time I’ll have more pics) – we had our first fire and abandon ship drills. These are extremely important, and everyone takes them seriously. I forgot to bring my camera to the fire drill, but I’ll try to remember next time. I had to put on my “gumby” suit, which is the survival suit we all need if we have to abandon ship. It’s an incredibly thick neoprene dry suit, and I felt rather silly in it, but it’s serious business! Cute, don’t you think?

Gumby suit

I will survive!

Did You Know?

In the Gulf of Mexico, the continental shelf extends about 60-100 miles from shore. The average depth of the Gulf is 1615 meters, with a maximum of about 4000 meters.

Challenge yourself: Where is the “Sigsbee Deep?” Are we going there?

New Term for the Day

Thalassophilia – love of the sea!

27 responses to “Julia West: It’s the Small Things in Life… March 20, 2015

  1. Glad to read that you are getting settled in on the research cruise! Will you be bringing any specimens back with you to land for further study?

  2. ‘Great post, Julie! Thanks! I’m excited for you and looking forward to reading more about the science on this trip and seeing the pix. Cheers! Ted

  3. Hi Julia,
    Your “gumby” suit is great! From my map, it looks like you will be in the area of the Sigsbee Escarpment which is north of the Sigsbee Deep. The Sigsbee Deep is in the central portion of the Gulf of Mexico.

  4. Great info. So why do you need a Gumby suit if it’s warm water? Do you make your own fresh water?

  5. Oh yes, Zoe, jars and jars and jars of specimens! I’m taking pictures – I will share what we are doing with all of these samples in the blogs.

  6. You nailed it, Ben! I never even knew about Sigsbee, or the Sigsbee Deep, until today! Sigsbee is the person who dramatically improved the depth sounder – which makes sense that then he found the real ocean floor!

  7. Hi Ryan, yes we do see other ships. We try to keep our distance, so it’s hard to see what types they are. I’ll see if I can get more info on that. There are definitely transit ships, bringing materials and people to and from the oil rigs. Sometimes we have no oil rigs in sight, and sometimes we might see 3 at a time.

  8. Thanks, Dick. That’s a really good question – I thought I would roast out there in a gumby suit in this heat. But think of the sun and what it would do, and if you were in the salt water, you would dehydrate, right? It also floats! But the drill is the same whether we’re in the North Atlantic or tropical water. The suits are standard practice. Yes, we make fresh water, by distillation – I’ll be sure to cover that. There is so much to talk about!

  9. Wow, Julie, loving the blog. Makes my 6 weeks of limnology on the upper Mississippi look like kids games. Really enjoying your blog. Thanks for sending it out. Joe

  10. Awesome, Julia! It sounds like you are having a great time learning & loving the sea. I love the photos too – especially the one of the survival suit🙂. I look forward to reading more blog posts!

  11. Nice blog, Julia! That looks like a fun cruise, too, I can’t believe a week has gone by since leaving home. Why does time pass so quickly when you’re having fun??

  12. I love your blog and all the photos. Diggin’ the gumby suit! And what? You ask a lot of questions? Really? I never knew that about you, hahahahaha! Be well and enjoy your adventure!

  13. Haha, Laura. The cool thing about hanging around with scientists is that they welcome questions, for the most part, no matter how nitpicky! (Laura is my sister – I guess she knows a little about me).

  14. Wow, Julia, it looks like you’re having a great time and learning a lot! I have to ask – is there a mathematical reason why the ship is traveling the zigzag path it is? Is this the most efficient path to hit all of the necessary spots? And are there any other math applications to what you’re doing?

  15. Julie, I never knew anything about plankton except that it was in the ocean and was food for whales! Never too late to learn! Glad you are having an amazing trip. You sound totally at home at sea – such a different environment for you – and I am wondering if the boat is very rocky and if there have been any seasickness issues? We’ll be on a boat off the FL coast near Ft Myers on Monday but it sounds as if you are heading in the opposite direction. Stay well!

  16. To help out with the why a gumby suit – there is a lot of data to show that water really chills the body down. This Coast Guard web page includes a table http://greatlakes.coastguard.dodlive.mil/2013/04/hypothermia-kills-these-tips-can-save-your-life/

    Keep in mind that the water temperature where we are in the Gulf is about 20 – 25 Celsius, I nearly said centigrade (Marks me as a dinosaur.) However since the table is for the US a small conversion will be necessary to find the right line on the table.

  17. Hi Julia seems like you’re having a lot of fun out at sea. The scientist on the ship look as excited as you are. Can’t wait to see more blog posts and pictures (that sunset picture is pretty amazing). It seems like the scientists are running military like shift changes. Are there any other tasks going on, on the ship besides the study of plankton? The gumby suit is pretty silly looking but hey, it will save your life if anything bad happens…so it evens out…I guess haha.

  18. Haha, Peggy, I think the jury’s still out on whether I’m “totally” at home at sea, since the waves have picked up and I took my first meclizine last night! I’m fine, but my head felt a little spacy. Definitely a different environment, but I love to try all new things!

  19. Good question, Andrew! Thanks for following. There is very often other research going on, for example bird observation, besides the primary research, but in this case, plankton is it. Sometimes birds hang out on the ship to rest – we had a couple of cattle egrets resting yesterday. Unfortunately I can’t find a single bird book on the ship so I can’t look some of them up! So this cruise is all about plankton, but I’m quite fascinated with the navigation and the running of the ship, and I’ll be talking about that. (Andrew lives in Singapore.)

  20. Hi Jacquelyn! (Jacquelyn is one of our high school math teachers at Oak Meadow). I asked about that, and the answer to the first question is no. It makes sense to do the stations in a bunch, criss-crossing over the shelf break to get both sides of it. If we went on a straight line west, we would be covering all of one similar depth, then another when we came back, etc. If something happened and we had to go back, to port, we would have an awkward sample. The ship goes where Pam says to go, and it was her decision to do it this way. As far as math applications – woooooeeeeee! Yeah there’s math, and the most interesting math imaginable! I’ll write a blog post about it.

  21. Wow. It is amazing how you collect the plankton. How many plankton have you collected so far?

  22. Hi Emalie – well, that’s a big question. Each bongo capture is like a cup, and multiply that by 6 times a day, and each neuston capture is the same, or sometimes double that, depending on what we get. I’ll get pictures of the cases of jars that we are getting. That’s a lot of sorting! It would also be neat, when I get back to shore, to find out what the data that comes back from Poland looks like, and how they analyze it. I’ll see if I can do that.

  23. Hello Ms. West! Skyler L. here. The Sigsbee Deep is the deepest area located in the southwestern quadrant of the Gulf of Mexico.

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