Julia West: Neuston! March 25, 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 25, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time 0900; mostly sunny, clouds 25% altocumulus; wind 5 knots, 120° (ESE); air 21°C, water 21°C, wave height 1-2 ft.

Science and Technology Log

We continue to zigzag westward on our wild plankton hunt. When we are closer to shore, navigation is tricky, because we are constantly dodging oil platforms, so we can never quite do the straight lines that are drawn on the chart.

Plankton stations 3/25/15

Here’s what we have covered through this morning. We’re making good time!

One of our Oak Meadow math teachers, Jacquelyn O’Donohoe, was wondering about math applications in the work that we are doing. The list is long! But don’t let that deter you from science – no need to fear the math! In fact, Commanding Officer Donn Pratt told me that he was never good at math, but when it came to navigating a ship, it all became more visual and much more understandable. I think it’s cool to see math and physics being applied. So, just for fun, I’ll point out the many places where math is used here on the ship – it’s in just about every part of the operations.

Today’s topic is neuston. As soon as we get the bongo nets back on board, the cable gets switched over to the neuston net. This net is a huge pipe rectangle, 1 meter x 2 meters, with a large net extending to the cod end to collect the sample. The mesh of this net is 1mm, much larger than the 0.3mm mesh of the bongo nets. So we aren’t getting the tiniest things in the neuston net, but still pretty small stuff! We lower the net to the surface, using the winch, and let it drag there for ten minutes. The goal is to have the net half in the water, so we have a swept area of 0.5 x 2 meters, or 1 square meter. (See, there’s some math for you!) That’s the goal. Sometimes with big waves, none of the net is in the water, and then all of it is, but it averages out.

Deploying neuston net

Here I am helping to deploy the neuston net. Photo credit: Kim Johnson

Neuston net

Neuston net in the water. Photo credit: Madalyn Meaker

Then we hose the net off thoroughly to get what is stuck to the net into the cod end.

Neuston net cleaning

Andy is hosing off the neuston net.

As I mentioned before, neuston is the array of living organisms that live on or just below the surface. Some of it is not plankton, as you can also catch larger fish, but mostly, the sample overlaps with the larger plankton that we catch in the bongos. There tends to be more jellyfish in the neuston net, so we sometimes wear gloves. Pam got stung by a man o’ war on the first day while cleaning out the net!


neuston sample

Pam is sorting an interesting neuston sample. See her smile – she clearly loves plankton!

Collecting neuston

Madalyn funneling the neuston into a jar with ethanol

Sometimes we end up with Sargassum in our nets. Sargassum is a type of brown “macroalgae” (seaweed) that grows in large clumps and floats on the surface. Have you ever heard of the Sargasso Sea? It is a massive collection of Sargassum in the Atlantic Ocean, held in place by the North Atlantic Gyre.


Sargassum taken from a sample


Sargassum in the water








Sargassum often collects in our nets. Sometimes we get gallons of Sargassum, and we have to carefully hose the organisms off of it, and throw the weeds back. We get the most interesting variety of life in the Sargassum! It supports entire communities of life that wouldn’t be there without it. If you want to know a little more about Sargassum communities, check out this website.

Here are a few examples of some of the photographable organisms we have collected in the neuston net. I’m working on getting micrographs of the really cool critters that are too small to see well with the naked eye, but they are amazing – stay tuned. All of the fish, except the flying fish, are very young; the adults will be much, much larger. (If you click on one of these, you will see a nice slide show and the full caption.)

Lastly, here is a really cool neuston sample we got – whale food!


This sample looks like it is almost entirely made up of copepods; this species is a beautiful blue color.

Personal Log

Now let’s turn to the other life form on the ship – the people. There are a total of 26 people on this cruise. Everyone is really great; it’s a community of its own. First, let me introduce the NOAA Corps crew who run the ship.

The NOAA Corps, or NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States (can you name the others?). It seems that many have never heard of the NOAA Corps, so it’s worth telling you a little bit about them. Officers are trained to take leadership positions in the operation of ships and aircraft, conducting research missions such as this one and much, much more! NOAA Corps has all the career benefits of the U.S. military, without active combat. Our officers all have a degree in some kind of science, often marine science or fisheries biology.

The crew members generally keep 4 hour watches, twice a day. I really enjoy going up to the bridge to hang out with them. It’s a whole different world up there, and they have been gracious enough to explain to me (as best as I can understand it) how they navigate the ship. Conceptually, I get it pretty well, but even if I was allowed to, I wouldn’t dare touch one of the buttons and dials they have up there!

Our XO (Executive Officer) on the Gunter is LCDR Colin Little. Colin has been with NOAA for eleven years now, and his previous assignments include Sea Duty aboard Oregon II and Oscar Elton Sette, and shore assignments in Annapolis, MD and Newport, OR. His background is in fish morphology and evolution.  His wife and two sons are currently living in Chicago.

ENS Kristin Johns has been on the Gunter for almost a year. She joined NOAA after getting a biology degree at Rutgers. She is currently being trained to be the next Navigation Officer. Kristin is the safety officer, as well as the MPIC (Medical Person in Charge). Kristin is the one who suggested I use the word “thalassophilia” as the word of the day – something she clearly suffers from!

Our Operations Officer (OPS) is LT Marc Weekley. Marc is in charge of organizing the logistics, and coordinating between the scientists and the crew. He’s been with NOAA for ten years (on the Gunter for two years), and has had some interesting land-based as well as offshore posts, including a year at the South Pole Station (yes, Antarctica) doing clean air and ozone monitoring.

ENS Melissa Mathes is newest officer with NOAA, but spent 6 years in the Army Reserves in college, and then 6 years of active duty with the Navy. Melissa loves archery and motorcycles, and she has been rumored to occasionally dance while on watch.

Melissa and Marc

ENA Melissa Mathes and LT Marc Weekley

ENS (which stands for Ensign, by the way) David Wang, originally from New York City, is our Navigation Officer (NAV). He’s been with NOAA for two years. His job, as he puts it, is “getting us where we gotta go, safely.” He is the one who charts our course, or oversees the other Junior Officers as they do it. Dave used to be a commercial fisherman, and when he’s not on duty, those are his fishing lines extending out from the back deck. He’s also an avid cyclist and ultimate Frisbee player.

ENS Peter Gleichauf has been on the Gunter since November, but finished his training over a year ago. He is also an aviator, musician, and avid outdoors person. In fact, for all of the officers, health, fitness, and active lifestyle is a priority. Pete is in charge of environmental compliance on the ship.

Dave and Pete

ENS Dave Wang and ENS Pete Gleichauf

King mackerel

Lead fisherman Jorge Barbosa and a king mackerel caught today on Dave’s line! It took 2 deck crew men to pull it in!


Term of the Day: USS Cole – you can look this one up. Next blog post I will explain what in the world it has to do with a plankton research cruise. I promise it will all make sense!


11 responses to “Julia West: Neuston! March 25, 2015

  1. Hi Julia,
    What rank is the commanding officer? Colin is taller than Kristin. In the second photo she was standing on a that piece of equipment behind them.

  2. Julia,
    The tiny fish photos are so cool. I used to watch moon jellies, sea horses, and nudibranchs off my back dock in Florida. Not something I can do here in the middle of North Carolina!

  3. Stay tuned for a CO bio, Ryan. Haven’t covered him yet. You are one step ahead of me all the way!

  4. Hey Julie – Any evidence from the BP oil spill or plastic particles? What’s the dead zone in the Gulf? Are you sampling through that?

  5. Those fish are beautiful! What do plankton do at night when the sun isn’t shining, do they float near the surface or sink?

  6. Haven’t seen evidence of the BP spill – we’re far west now, but yes, plastic is often in our samples (see today’s blog post!). I know there is a lot of oil leaking from abandoned oil platforms and the hundreds of miles of pipeline at the bottom of the Gulf. We did sample close to the Miss River outlet (dead zone), and the water was definitely much less clear. Didn’t get a chance to see the oxygen levels. But it is a hypoxic area where the Miss. River enters the Gulf, with all its excess nutrients from the farmland upstream, causing overgrowth of algae, and resulting increase in bacterial decomposition. End result is no oxygen for fish and other critters.

  7. i love all of the little fish in the water and nets, it is so cool that you are able to do this trip. How long is your voyage supposed to be?

  8. We get back April 2, Scott. (You can see the length on the beginning of each post). Glad you’re reading, and thanks for letting me know you’re here! (Scott is in the Bahamas)

  9. I’m so glad you’re reading this, Emalie. It means so much to me to see all the comments! It is very new being on a ship. We’ve had some rough (by my standards) seas, like right now. It’s not bad, just up, down, up, down, back and forth…. I’ve taken the seasick meds a few times, but they make me feel sleepy and yukky. There are times I feel less than great, but so far so good in the seasick department! Staring at a computer screen is not good!

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