Alex Miller, The Sea Around Us, The Seafloor Below Us, June 7, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Alexandra (Alex) Miller, Chicago, IL
Onboard NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada
May 27 – June 10, 2015 

Our ship.

Our ship.

Mission: Rockfish Recruitment and Ecosystem Assessment
Geographical area of cruise: Pacific Coast
Date: Sunday, June 7th, 2015

Weather Data:

  • Air Temperature: 12.4°C
  • Water Temperature: 13.3°C
  • Sky Conditions: Overcast
  • Wind Speed (knots/kts) and Direction: 22 kts, N
  • Latitude and Longitude: 45°59’62”, 124°33’97”


The only piece of equipment on the Shimada I haven’t told you about is the box corer. Jason Phillips has been using the box corer to collect, well, box cores. Box cores are samples of the bottom of the ocean or sea floor (also, seabed). The box core is lowered to various depths (400 m, 300 m, 200 m, 100 m and 60 m), then survey technicians, Jaclyn Mazzella or Phil White, open the jaws of the machine and scoop up a mouthful of whatever is on the bottom, including benthic (referring to bottom of the ocean) creatures.

Once surfaced, Jason subsamples the sediment, sand, mud, small pieces of rocks and debris, removing just a small part of it and storing it until our return to land. Subsampling allows scientists to measure a manageable amount and then generalize about the larger remainder; while this is limiting because it assumes uniformity throughout the box core, the alternative is looking through each piece of sediment individually, something that is time and cost prohibitive. However, he does invest the time necessary to pick out all the creatures collected by the box corer.

Back at his lab, Jason will analyze the sediment, and then he or a colleague will identify all the tiny, tiny organisms, living things, found in the core.

Below, you can see Jason processing the core. He has washed down the smaller pieces of sediment like clay and sand through the holes in the mesh sieve. The sieve traps the smaller pieces of rock and even smaller animals, allowing him to pick them out and place them into preservative for processing when he returns to shore.

Jason and Amanda pick out benthic organisms from a core sample.

Jason and Amanda pick out benthic organisms from a core sample.

Through the study of box cores, Jason hopes to learn more about the creatures that live on the bottom of the sea. He told me many scientists who are doing box cores are simply collecting the sediment for study, they are not looking to see what organisms live in it, and therefore, there is a lot we don’t know. He says, “I would not be surprised if we found a new species in these cores.”

Take a look at some of the creatures Jason has unearthed on this cruise:

Because he has been collecting this data for two years, there are some patterns emerging about sediment conditions in different areas of the seabed. This information may help inform the placement and construction of a proposed wind farm off the Oregon coast.

For at least one day of our cruise, Jason also put out hooked long-lines to try and catch albacore, a type of tuna. Unfortunately, the fish weren’t biting. While albacore are unique among most tuna in that they prefer cooler water, Jason says the late-spring waters off the Oregon coast are still a little too cold for them and since they can swim up to 100 miles a day, they can easily find some more comfortable temperatures. The albacore that have been caught on previous cruises as part of this ongoing study are being tested for radioisotopes that may have originated from the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011.


And, of course, there’s always fun to be had on the Shimada. Below you can watch a video of Jason unearthing a pupa utility-worm from one of his box cores; scientific name (Travisia pupa), affectionately known as the “stink worm.” Will decides we need a closer, um, look.


Tyler Jackson, a Master’s student at Oregon State University has been working on fisheries genetics since he was an undergraduate. His interest in marine science began when he was a wee recreational fisherman’s son growing up on the US-Canada border in Port Huron, MI.

In collecting megalopae, a larval form of Dungeness crab, he is trying to determine how closely related the Dungeness crab of areas off the Oregon coast are. He has studied population genetics among adult Dungeness crabs along the West Coast. He hypothesizes that if adult crabs in an area are closely related, larvae settling in the nearshore would be too. However, he tells me that it is not well understood how crab larvae travel throughout the ocean, and then for some to make it back to nearshore and settle to the bottom, maybe near where they came from. Perhaps these extended families get scattered throughout the seas, perhaps not.

Tyler Jackson, Oregon State University

Tyler Jackson, Oregon State University

At the first few stations, the tows were not bringing back enough individuals to give Tyler a large enough sample size to provide a reliable assessment of whether the crabs in that part of the ocean are related or not. Unfortunately, on this cruise Tyler did not get a sample size large enough to use.

In the following video you can see that, after sieving the neuston, Tyler found two Dungeness megalopae (too small of a sample size to test) but quite a lot of red rock crab megalopae. These little creatures are fascinating and pretty adorable.

I also interviewed Tyler about his work and life at sea. You can hear our talk below.


Two nights ago, I couldn’t sleep at all, and I was thinking about the fact that my time on the Shimada is quickly coming to a close. I was trying to find a way to get even more information from the scientists on board to you. Taped interviews seemed like the perfect solution. I began conducting them yesterday and, after finishing three, realized I’d spoken to three of the four other women of the science crew. And so, here we are having a conversation about gender equity in the sciences.


The ladies of the science crew. From left: Samantha Zeman, Amanda Gladics, Emily Boring, Brittney Honisch, Alexandra Miller

Using data from a longitudinal study done by the National Science Foundation, in 1973, 88% of doctorate holders working at the university level in life sciences (includes marine biology) were male, just 12% were female. Hearteningly, women have become much more well represented in the life sciences; in 2010, these numbers were 58% and 42%, respectively‡. You can see this same kind of near gender balance on board the Shimada: of the twelve (counting me) members of the science crew, five are women. Women are also well-represented in this blog post.

You can see the numbers breakdown for all the science and engineering fields here.


I interviewed the four other women of the science crew about their research and life on board the ship, as well as being a woman in the field of life science. You can hear those interviews below.

If you would like to find the parts of the conversations about gender equality in marine science, you may use the time stamps below.

Table of Contents:

  • Amanda Gladics, Faculty Research Assistant, OSU Seabird Oceanography Lab (13.55)
  • Samantha Zeman, Graduate Student and Research Assistant, University of Oregon (7.00)
  • Brittney Honisch, Marine Scientist, Hatfield Marine Science Center (8.50)
  • Emily Boring, Sophomore, Yale University (I did not ask Emily as she is still an undergraduate)

‡Compare this to the numbers for the physical sciences, in 1973, 95% of doctorates employed in academia were male, compared to 5% female; in 2010, 79% male to 21% female.

Additional Reading:

“Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” New York Times, 2013

And no less than 4 days later…

“Tim Hunt Resigns After Comments” New York Times, 2015

Twitter Campaign #distractinglysexy


Question of the Day:

Why are there still so few women in science? What can be done to encourage girls to pursue, and stay, in STEM fields?

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