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Students at Sea

August 27, 2013
kelly and lander

Kelly is all smiles as we retrieve the lander.

By Kelly Bryant Franklin

Ah yes, the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster. Volunteering as a student technician has been an awesome experience. It was quite a relief, as well as a boost of confidence, that what I learned in school really did set me up to be able to do this work. It’s a great thing when a Dutch scientist starts setting up equipment that she’ll need some assistance with, and you not only know exactly what it is, but also how to use it. It felt good to be useful and appreciated.

The night watch, 1900-0700, was intimidating at first, but with so many CTDs and liters and liters of water samples to filter, you almost forget you’re not sleeping. The downside to the night shift is sleeping through the excitement of the day shift. For example, I not only missed a whale shark that swam up to the boat, but also breakfast and lunch! Not to mention the recovery of the landers and moorings we were after in the first place! But seriously, the food on this boat is amazing! We’ve had everything from lamb, yes I said lamb, to super duper fresh Wahoo sashimi. Don’t even get me started on dessert.

We, unfortunately, did not recover all of the equipment from the canyons. Hopefully someone will sight a hint of yellow, or perhaps even an orange flag, assuming they’ve made it to the surface, and call in the missing mooring and lander. Gaps in data are never fun, especially when you’ve been waiting a year for it, not to mention the expense. But with the Dutch clogs on board, sitting safely in their beautiful shadow box, I believe it will all work out.

Sitting now on the “Steel Beach” with a ridiculously peaceful ocean gliding by below me, I feel how lucky I really am to be a part of this trip. Great crew, great scientists, great food, great fun… What more could you really ask for?

Perhaps just one win in Mexican Train!

By Colby B. Witt


Colby watching the sunrise after working the night shift

During my week of adventure aboard the NOAA ship Nancy Foster, I have learned and experienced many new things. My first at sea voyage started on the R/V Dan Moore, out of Wilmington NC. The Dan Moore was an old shrimping boat rigged to be a research vessel and was rumored to be held together with bungee cords and Duct Tape. The Nancy Foster was a step up to say the least.

Now on my sixth at sea research cruise, I’m on the Nancy Foster  and I have gained a different perspective on a life at sea form the primitive Dan Moore. While cruising with NOAA I have seen many different types of equipment being used, such as the multi-beam sonar and its operating system. I also got very familiar with using a CTD and collecting water samples, and using a mono-core to collect sediment samples from the ocean floor. I am thankful that the NOAA survey crew allowed me to actually participate in all the work being done and helped me learn as much as possible. They were also so patient and happy to answer all the questions I had for them about their lifestyle aboard the ship and all of their duties.

Over the course of this week at sea I have learned more than just how to use all the scientific equipment. I have been introduced to many different career paths that I that I didn’t know existed that I would be interested in pursuing, such as a hydrographic survey technician or being involved in the NOAA corps. I also didn’t just learn from the crew aboard the Nancy Foster but also the scientific team here with me, from Furu and Gerard and leaning about the Netherlands, to Jonathan telling me about being a survey technician in the water off of Antarctica. I am so thankful for the opportunity to come on the Nancy Foster. I want to thank everyone for making this a fun, exciting, and most of all an educational trip.

By Sarah Nall

Sarah's sunset

Sarah captured this sunset as we steamed back to Charleston.

Sailors of days past once believed that the world was flat, that it ended at the horizon; that one could truly reach the end of the world. Though we now know that this is not the case, while traveling the open sea it is easy to understand that way of thinking. You look out over the ocean and the world just…seems…to… end. There is water and then there is sky. One can easily imagine the water rushing over the edge of the world in great roaring, crashing waterfalls. Nothing seems to solidify this idea more than watching the sun setting, sinking below the horizon, seeing the glowing sun disappear from view, setting the sky and water on fire with glorious oranges and reds.


The Mystery of the Second Lander

August 27, 2013

Olivia gets ready to lower the hydrophone in order to ping the lander.

The focus of this cruise was to retrieve four landers we deployed last year in Baltimore and Norfolk Canyons. Two of the landers were from UNCW and two from NIOZ, and they were placed at specific locations so we could collect a year’s worth of data on the physical parameters of the water at the bottom. Currently, three landers are on board. The second lander we tried to recover is still missing, but there is hope.

We communicate with the landers via a  “ping” — a sound sent at a constant frequency. The landers emit pings, which we can find by lowering a hydrophone into the water. We can also send a ping at a different frequency to give instructions to the landers, such as “release your ballast weights.”

pinging the lander

Furu and Gerard sending a “ping” down to try and find the second lander.

On Friday, August 23, we sent a ping down to the first NIOZ lander telling it to release its weight. It popped up on the surface and we had it on board within about 40 minutes. We steamed over to the location of the second lander and tried again. This time was a different story. We could hear the landers ping but could not determine a distance from it, which is what we need in order to triangulate its location. We asked it to drop its ballast weight but could not tell if it did so. We spent a long time searching for the lander, and trying to get a response. We knew if it came up to the surface it would begin sending a satellite signal with its latitude and longitude and we would be able to go pick it up.

Once evening arrived we moved on to the site of our other landers and successfully retrieved them on August 24th. We have to note that these last two landers had been retrieved and redeployed in May, so they had a much shorter length of time since they had last been seen. Gerard got a few messages from the satellite transmitter on the missing lander. The messages were unclear but having recovered everything we needed from the Baltimore Canyon we decided to head back to the Norfolk Canyon and continuing to look for the  “second lander.”

We spent much of yesterday looking for the lander. Occasionally we could “hear” it but we were not able to tell if it was on the surface. We thought maybe it was stuck in the mud on the bottom, or had not actually released its weight. We searched until nearly dinnertime and we had to start heading back to Charleston. It


The sun sets as we make our way back to port.

was with much disappointment that we watched the beautiful sunset on the starboard side of the ship as our bow pointed south. We began talking about getting a grant to come back later and try to recover it.

However, Monday morning Gerard got an update from the satellite transmitter company. They had been able to use some of the signals they had received to determine the location of the lander, and it may be on the surface and drifting towards shore. We are well past its location and can’t turn around to go get it. We have begun working with the ship’s crew and on-shore resources to find a boat that can go retrieve it.

Science has a certain amount of risk, and the risk is great when leaving experiments at the bottom of the ocean for a year. But it is worth it. Each lander provides multiple types of high resolution data. This is information we can use to help make wise decisions about how to use our ocean resources.


August 26, 2013

By Gabriela Hogue

Tim and Joe fishing off the stern.

Tim and Joe fishing off the stern.

As we steam back to port, the crew took full advantage of the time – fishing. The line was out for quite a while and then something got hooked. We all headed to the back deck to see what would be coming up. Tim Olsen, Chief Engineer, was working the line and Joe Clark, Junior Engineer was patiently waiting with a fishing gaff. Don’t worry; other engineers were on duty and handling the engines. Then a Wahoo surfaced.

Tim and the Wahoo

The Wahoo (Acanthocybium solandri) is a prized sport fish because of its speed and high-quality flesh. It is covered in very small scales and has beautiful blue and silver coloration.

colorsTim was pretty excited about his catch, which measured 4 feet 3 inches. We are all pretty excited too, because the chefs were going to prepare it for dinner!

Before Bob Burroughs, 2nd Cook, and Lito Llena, Chief Steward, came out to fillet it,

Gabriela takes a fin sample for DNA work. Photo by Art Howard

Gabriela takes a fin clip for DNA work.
Photo by Art Howard

I was able to get a piece of the right pelvic fin clip and preserve it 95% ethanol. This fin clip will become a part of the tissue collection of the Fishes Unit at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. We have been collecting tissue for many years. Usually, tissue is linked to a vouchered whole specimen but this will be linked to a picture of the specimen. This fin clip can be used for DNA analysis and is large enough that I will be able to loan out pieces of it many times over. Most tissue loans consist of tissue pieces that are smaller than a grain of rice. That’s right, researchers can get a ton of information from the smallest little piece. It’s amazing.

Gabriela and sushiAfter the chefs had filleted Tim’s Wahoo, we checked out some very strange parasites that they had found in the gut. The conversation switched to how awesome it would be to have some sashimi right then and there. Well, out came a knife and the sashimi party started.  We all agreed that it was wonderful. Leave it to a bunch of folks on a research vessel to be able to eat part of a fish while the parasites wriggle in the background!

Meet the Crew – Sam Martin

August 26, 2013

By Dacia Harris

Sam Martin

Sam working on some of the data generated by the ship.

Sam is originally from a small coastal town in Virginia.  She went inland to Kansas State on a full rowing scholarship. She earned her BS in geology, which she chose because she loves being outside.  After graduation Sam moved to Atlanta, Georgia, working in the biogeochemical lab at Georgia Tech for approximately 2 years and then joining an environmental consulting firm as a geologist for a year.  During this time Sam’s future husband mentioned that she might enjoy being on crew for a NOAA ship.  With this in mind, Sam spent six months going through the NOAA application process, which included an interview and background check. Sam’s first NOAA ship assignment was in Alaska.  She stayed on that boat until heading back east joining the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster.

Mike and map

Mike calculating the next location for deploying a CTD. Gerard and Furu brought candy from the Netherlands to keep everyone’s energy up during the long hours.

On the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster, Sam is the head survey technician, which means that she, in conjunction with the Operations Officer, is the liaison between the scientists and the boat crew regarding the equipment on deck.  She is also in charge of the deck operation safety, such as reminding the crew and scientists that they must wear their hard hats, life vests and tethers.  When not working directly with the scientists, she uses onboard equipment (CTDs, acoustics, etc.…) to gather additional information for NOAA.  This includes post-processing of raw data from multibeaming to remove outliers that would create inaccuracies.  Her quality control leads to accurate mapping of depth at exact latitude and longitudes.

When asked about life aboard a vessel such as the Nancy Foster, Sam explained the cruise length is based on how much food they can store. The ship will have to come back into port every 2-3 weeks or so, but they do not come back to home port in Charleston, SC every time.  This means they may be out at sea for two months at a time.  When the Nancy Foster does come home, the crew is still required to work their daily shifts in their floating office aboard the ship.  The length of missions for the ship is variable, depending on the need, and therefore the crew may only be in port for a few days before setting out again.  Sam enjoys her position and the freedom for traveling places she may not otherwise have.

Building Good Karma

August 25, 2013
fishing boat

The red rescue boat from the R/V Nancy Foster lending a hand to a stranded fishing boat.

Our work was interrupted Friday so that we could assist a vessel having engine difficulties.  They were near us, about 60 miles offshore, and had lost all power and electricity. They had been working on the issue for about five hours, and we were asked to see if we could provide some help. Two of our NOAA Corps members took equipment over in our small boat. They stood by as the people in the fishing boat got their engine started and felt confident enough to head into shore. We were glad to assist but also sad as we watched our limited research window tick away.

However, helping the fishing vessel must have given us some good “karma” as today has been amazing. The weather forecast had everyone worried last night. High winds and high seas were predicted, and we had two landers and a mooring to recover. We wanted to complete some CTDs, and mapping as well. We awoke to a beautiful sunrise and recovered our first lander in about 40 minutes total. We steamed to the next lander and recovered it just a quickly. It was amazing to have both landers on deck before lunch.

The next challenge was finding and retrieving a mooring we had deployed last year. A mooring is much like a lander in that it stays submerged and records data for an extended period of time. The main difference is that the mooring has a long string of  floats coming up from the base, and monitoring equipment can be placed along the line, thus getting measurements higher up in the water column rather than just at the base. This mooring has a Honju sediment trap at the base, and ADCP (Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler) for measuring current, and a Microcat (a type of CTD).


Jonathan and Furu “pinging” the mooring.

And like the landers, a ping is sent down to release the weight and allow it to surface.

mooring floating

The mooring at the surface.

The mooring came up quickly. As the crew and science team got it up on deck, we were treated to an awesome display of blows and fins from a pod of Minke Whales. We continued to see the whales throughout the day, as we ran a series of CTDs. About mid-afternoon Furu spotted a Whale Shark off the bow. It stayed around for several  minutes, allowing nearly everyone a good look. The day ended with sunset behind us as we continued to do CTDs.

Whatever the reason, we are all excited with the work we accomplished, and looking forward to another jam-packed day tomorrow.


A pod of Minke Whales spotted near the ship during the recovery of the lander.

Kelly and Sarah filtering water

Kelly and Sarah filtering water from the Niskin bottles on the CTD.

Shrinking Cups

August 23, 2013
large cups

Cups before shrinking.

small cups

Cups after shrinking.

When you send a styrofoam cup down to a great depth under the sea, the styrofoam is compressed and the cup shrinks. You can draw on them with waterproof marker, and the drawings become tiny pieces of artwork. This summer, participants in a program at a library in Greensboro had a chance to Skype with Liz Baird. They learned about her participation in several research missions and saw some of the cups she had “shrunk” while at sea. After the program the students wrote on their on cups and mailed them to Liz. They were sent down on a CTD yesterday and you can see how much they have shrunk!

The Plates

August 23, 2013

By Gabriela Hogue

Mike and plates

Mike removing the plates from the lander.

Today I had the privilege of working with Mike Gray from USGS. He needed help removing his experiment from the lander that we would be retrieving. The experiment consisted of 3 plates, each with a hole drilled in the middle, attached together using a threaded nylon rod. The rod was attached to the lander using zip ties and gardener’s tape. Each plate is made of a different material; hard sandstone, steel, and Key West Limestone. There were 4 of these rods, with 3 plates each attached to the lander.

The thought is that bacteria should grow on each plate before anything else colonizes them. This should mimic the colonization that happens within the canyon. The canyons are made up of compressed mud, which is why one of the plates is hard sandstone. The steel plate is thought to mimic the steel from a shipwreck. The limestone plate mimics the carbonate that forms in place in the canyon. Coral tends to grow on all three of these materials.

We removed the plates as aseptically as possible. This meant that I would wear gloves, grab the plate with a bag, which was previously labeled (Stack 1, top or Stack 4, bottom, etc.), remove the plate from the nylon threaded rod, and let it slide all the way into the bag. Once we collected all of the plates, we went into the wet lab and preserved them using RNALater. The plates were put into the refrigerator and will stay there one day and then be moved into the freezer. Once Mike gets back to his lab, he will microscopically look for settlement of coral spat, hydroids, etc. and can also sequence the material.

We assume that colonization occurs in the following manner: bacteria, then coral, then other invertebrates, etc. This experiment will help to demonstrate the colonization process on different materials within the deep water canyons. It’s incredible just how much information can be gathered from these landers and the experiments that they contain.

First Lander is Up!

August 23, 2013
furu with lander

Furu is all smiles as the first lander is recovered.

“Wow! How cool is this!” exclaimed Dacia on the port bow after watching the bright yellow marker buoy pop up, followed by a roaring cheer as the flag on the lander broke the surface. After getting up at 5:30 am, she admits she had been thinking that she had no idea what to look for, and how was she supposed to spot the lander? She started looking for something out of the ordinary, something that was not supposed to be there. When she saw the yellow floats she knew she was looking at the right thing.

getting the lander on deck

It took teamwork, a great ship’s crew and an A-frame to get the lander on deck.

Retrieving the lander was an example of perfectly orchestrated teamwork; the ship steamed alongside the lander and its buoy. One of the techs threw a grappling hook towards the line between the buoy and lander. After snagging the line, it was pulled on board. The buoy was lifted on deck, the line was run through the winch, and then the lander was brought on board. It took the coordinated efforts of the ship’s crew and science team for this successful recovery.

When asked about the lander, Dacia said “It was not what I thought it was going to be. I thought there was going to be more equipment on it based on the size of the cage frame. There was a big huge anemone on one of the legs, which made me wonder what might be living in the little yellow flotation devices around the top. I was very interested to know what kind of data it might have stored on it.”

liz and anemone

This large anemone was attached to the leg of the lander.

The large anemone released itself from the leg after it was out of the water for a few minutes. It was more than 100mm across. The size of the anemone was amazing considering it had only been growing for a year. Dacia removed the small anemones and hydroids that were attached to the lander. The samples were stored in 70% ethanol so that they could be transported back to the mainland.

There is more information to be gathered from the lander at a later time. For example, Mike and Gabriela worked on removing the settling plates (look for a blog post about that!) and Furu will determine when to start downloading data that was stored in the mechanisms. We started our search for the second lander instead of focusing on data from the first. We are still trying to find the second lander and are hoping that the weather will continue to cooperate!

Flying Fish

August 22, 2013

By Gabriela Hogue

Flying Fish

A flying fish using its tail to further its glide.

Steaming towards our first station in Norfolk Canyon we were treated to a fireworks display of flying fish. As the bow cut through the water and spotted dolphins frolicked in the waves of the boat, flying fish began gliding just above the surface of the water in order to get out of the way. They can propel themselves out of the water and use their wing-like fins to glide through the air. Researchers have discovered that they can travel up to 400 m and the longest glide was measured at 45 seconds. A typical flight is about 50 meters. At the end of their glide, they either fold their pectoral fins in order to reenter the ocean or they drop their deeply forked caudal fin (tail) into the water to push against the water for another lift for more gliding.

So, what are flying fish? They are in the family Exocoetidae and can be found in all the oceans, especially in tropical and subtropical waters. Within the family, there are 60+ different species, in 7-9 different genera (these numbers depend on who you talk to). There is a lot of diversity in the reproductive strategies within this family. Some species have buoyant eggs which they lay in the open ocean to float along the surface. Other species also lay their eggs in the open ocean but the eggs have stringy filaments which get wound up in floating debris (like sargassum). Others spend their entire lives in coastal areas, or return to coastal areas to reproduce. Flying fish primarily eat zooplankton, and are in turn an important food source for many marine predators. They are also an important commercial fish in Asia. Along with their meat, their roe is collected and used in sushi.

A gliding flying fish is a beautiful thing to behold. Cruising right above the water and using the air currents and their caudal fins to glide farther and farther, it’s no wonder that in the early 1900’s, flying fish were studied as possible models used to develop airplanes.

Curious Dacia goes to Sea!

August 22, 2013

Welcome to sea!  This is Dacia Harris, the teacher at sea, for this last leg of the project.  In addition, this is my first extended stay at sea so I wanted to share a little about what I have experienced at sea.

Dacia and door

The watertight door between the wet lab and the back deck of the ship is a place where I have to duck.

For those of you who don’t know me, I am a 6’2” female.  I am very grateful to not have to duck everywhere to get places.  The only places that I have to duck so far are the watertight doors and my bunk.  The watertight doors have been interesting to try and maneuver my way through, being that they have small openings and are very heavy (we were warned that if we weren’t careful they could take off our arm) and the ship is always rocking back and forth.

The berth is actually much roomier than I had anticipated.  We each have a locker for our gear as well as drawers and cupboards so that our belongings are secured, on the off chance that we run into high seas.  The bunk is long enough for me to lie down flat (side sleeping is questionable as we rock, and you could easily end up on the floor).  You can see in the image, there are blackout curtains to help you sleep better.

Dacia in bunk

I demonstrate the coziness of my bunk.

Another interesting concept is the head (bathroom). There are two toilets (one significantly smaller than the other — think airplane bathroom) and three showers.  Thankfully the showers are pretty tiny because when the boat rocks, you have something to “brace yourself.”  We are all sharing the head (about 13 people) – good thing we are all getting along pretty well.

The best surprise is the mess (kitchen/dining).  There are two wonderful guys who are providing delicious nutritious food for a crew of more than 30.  And while there is no soda (I know!) we do have juice, tea and water.  Remember hydration is KEY while at sea to prevent sea-sickness. Well that, and a patch, wristbands, and Dramamine (remember this is my first long-term at sea).  I will fill you all in more on what we are doing out here a little later.

Kelly did this drawing of a morning at sea. It is easy to embrace the morning after climbing out of your bunk and enjoying a delicious breakfast and hot cup of coffee.

Kelly did this drawing of a morning at sea. It is easy to embrace the morning after climbing out of your bunk and enjoying a delicious breakfast and hot cup of coffee.