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First science cruise

June 11, 2011

By Caitlin Casar

As a newbie on the NOAA survey vessel Nancy Foster, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect on a two week expedition at sea. The sheer size of the ship was enough to blow me away. At a length of over 180 feet, this ship is decked out for deep sea exploring. The back deck is outfitted with two cranes, an A-frame and a J-frame, which can support thousands of pounds of gear.  Inside are two labs, a wet lab and a dry lab, where the scientific data collecting is done, as well as a galley, gym, lounge, and state rooms holding 37 bunks. There are about 20 crew members and 8 science party members. And this isn’t even the biggest ship in the NOAA fleet.

The first couple of days were spent getting acclimated to my new environment while we traveled from the Charleston Naval Base in South Carolina to Baltimore Canyon, located off the coast of Maryland. The primary goal of this cruise is to map the Mid-Atlantic canyons off the east coast from Cape Hatteras to the Gulf of Maine via swath bathymetry.

My task on this cruise, under the direction of Dr. Amanda Demopoulos, USGS, is to collect water samples from CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth) casts throughout the cruise. The water is collected using specially designed ‘niskin’ bottles that remain open until they reach the depth that interests us. We trigger the bottles to close at two depths —  at a depth of about 200 m and a depth near the bottom of the sea.

Once the cast is complete, my job is to filter the water collected from the niskin bottles. These filters will later be analyzed for particulate organic matter, or POM for short. This POM analysis measures the amount of nutrients that are supplied from the productivity of the surface waters, which is a key component to understanding trophic structure at specific depths.

Caitlin Casar (USGS) filters water from a CTD cast.  Photo by S.W. Ross

Caitlin Casar (USGS) filters water from a CTD cast.

So far I’ve had the opportunity to collect samples from three CTD casts, one in the southern corner of Baltimore Canyon, and two in a smaller canyon just south of Baltimore Canyon. Once we reach the Baltimore Canyon transect, we will collect more water samples. The filtering process only takes about 2 hours, so I’ve had plenty of time to kill in between, mostly getting to know everyone on board.

Earlier today, the deck officers were nice enough to give us a tour of the bridge. They showed us their flag collection, which had about 30 different flags, each with its own purpose. They also showed us how to locate and call other vessels when a smaller fishing boat crossed our path. The fisherman was laying out fishing buoys ahead of us, which forced us to go around him and change our course. So a new mapping plan was formed and we passed the fishing boat on our port side.

After a long day of work, there’s nothing better than throwing out a trolling line to try to catch some dinner. Ship engineer Steve Williams, a.k.a. Cupcake, taught me a thing or two about how to fish off the back of a 40 meter ship moving at 6 knots. The largest fish caught on the Nancy Foster to date was a 105 lb. Wahoo. So far, we haven’t had much luck on this cruise, but I haven’t given up yet.

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