May the Weather Be With You

June 4, 2019

The oft quoted line “May the force be with you” should be paraphrased as “May the weather be with you” for our now almost completed spring Ecosystems Monitoring Survey!  We have been blessed by calm seas and light winds for almost every day of this trip, and as a result have now completed sampling coverage on all of Georges Bank and nearly every station in the expansive Gulf of Maine area as well.

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The scientific seawater analysis system on this cruise includes sensors to measure carbon dioxide (NOAA), total alkalinity (UNH), optical properties (URI), and record imagery of phytoplankton (WHOI). All this data is gathered from surface water pumped in along the entire cruise track. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jerry Prezioso

As mentioned in previous updates, the Ecosystem Monitoring Surveys attempt to serve as a vehicle for collecting data on many different fronts, from plankton to hydrography to seabirds and marine mammals, ocean water chemistry and optical properties, educational outreach and testing the efficacy of collecting gear.

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Above:  Observers John Loch and Nick Metheny spent hours everyday on the flying bridge of the Henry B. Bigelow. Their observations of seabirds and marine mammals were interrupted only by fog banks, not bad weather! Right:  Bigelow crew members Aaron Walton and Stephen Crawford deploy a ring net plankton sampler. Photo credits: NOAA Fisheries/Jerry Prezioso

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This cruise, aided by good weather and a unique combination of scientific staff and equipment, has succeeded on all these fronts, and will return home with loads of data and samples collected during our sixteen days at sea.

However, behind the scenes there is another component to the scientific achievements of this cruise: the often unheralded support provided by the vessel and its crew.  Working together, the NOAA officers, engineers, deck crew, survey and electronics specialists all collaborate to make the Henry B. Bigelow the best platform possible for achieving its scientific mission.  Without them the scientists couldn’t accomplish their around the clock, 24/7 routine of data collection in the relative comfort of what can often be a very inhospitable environment; the open ocean.

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Survey tech Danielle Power monitors output from sensors during a CTD Niskin bottle water cast. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jerry Prezioso

Even spending Memorial Day weekend aboard on this cruise away from family and friends was made less of a burden by the efforts of the stewards to create a sense of community with their chili nacho nights,  ice cream socials on Sundays and smoked beef brisket and pulled pork dinners made with their own on-board smoker!

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Stewards Dennis Carey and Raymond Burgess in the galley of the Henry B. Bigelow preparing one of their many excellent meals! Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jerry Prezioso

Together with the rest of the scientific staff I’d like to thank everyone aboard the Henry B. Bigelow for enabling us to come home not just with a lot of data and samples, but also some fond memories and experiences from our time at sea.  Thank you all very much!

Jerry Prezioso
Chief Scientist
HB1902 Spring Ecosystem Monitoring Survey

Bongos, Barnacles and Boyle’s Law

May 29, 2019

Today marks one week into the voyage of the Henry B. Bigelow Spring Ecosystem Monitoring Survey, also known as EcoMon, and we have covered a lot of ground, literally, since our last update.  Now we have completed 60 stations as we move onto Georges Bank for the northern portion of our survey.  Aided by very good weather, we’ve been able to make good progress, and the sampling has proceeded smoothly with no stations missed from our truncated cruise plan.

Our plankton catches have been light, unencumbered by any algae blooms, thankfully unlike our plankton tows from last fall which were often dominated by dense blooms of a diatom, Thalassiosira mala, that coated our nets with a green mesh-plugging slime!

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Scanning electron micrograph of the diatom Thalassiosira mala that bloomed off the coast of Southern New England in the fall of 2018. Photo credit: Dr. Lucie Maranda, URI/GSO

Fish larvae from the Mid-Atlantic Bight and Southern New England waters have been sparse.  We have a student on board, Quentin Nichols, who has been retrieving fish larvae from one of the bongo plankton nets, but has met with only modest success from the tows he has examined in the southern part of the survey.

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Quentin Nichols from the NEFSC’s Narragansett Lab at his microscope aboard the FSV Henry B. Bigelow. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jerry Prezioso

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A flatfish larva collected from the bongo plankton sampler by Quentin Nichols. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Quentin Nichols

Sometimes we do encounter rather unusual “planktonic” finds.  One tow had two colonies of gooseneck barnacles which had attached themselves to two fragments of buoyant plastic that were scooped up by our bongo nets.  It was ironic to find pieces of plastic, one of today’s greatest threats to the ocean ecosystem, providing a habitat for some organisms.

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Gooseneck barnacles collected from the bongo nets. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jerry Prezioso

Ecosystem monitoring cruises from the Oceans and Climate Branch of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center collaborate with other institutions to conduct joint research while underway.  In addition, there is often an outreach component, usually in the form of a NOAA Teacher-at-Sea candidate who will sail with us to assist in deploying gear and recording data.  In our case a teacher wasn’t available to join us, but we do have representation from some young students in the form of hand-decorated Styrofoam cups.

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Tamara Holzwarth-Davis from the NEFSC’s Woods Hole Laboratory holds a mesh bag full of Styrofoam cups from 4th graders at Springbrook Elementary School. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jerry Prezioso

Fourth graders from the Springbrook Elementary School in Westerly, Rhode Island, have given us 60 of these cups to take out to sea.  Placed in a mesh bag and attached to our Niskin bottle rosette, they will provide an excellent


Anthony Johnson and Jonathan Harvey retrieve the Niskin bottle rosette sampler with attached yellow mesh bag full of Styrofoam cups. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jerry Prezioso

demonstration of Boyle’s Law for the students as they shrink from repeated submersion with the sampling array as it’s lowered to the sea floor to collect water samples and hydrographic data.  These cups, now already a fraction of their original size, will be returned to the students after we disembark on June 6 as mementos of their class’s sea-pressure project!

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Cruise track of the HB 1902 EcoMon Survey as of the morning of May 29, 2019. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jerry Prezioso

Now with one week left to this survey we are planning a route that will take us across Georges Bank and through the Gulf of Maine, sampling as many stations as we can reach in the time remaining.  What has been unusual compared to surveys at other times of the year is that the weather has been consistently good, and is forecast to remain so for the near future, which certainly makes planning a lot easier!
Jerry Prezioso
Chief Scientist
HB 1902 Spring Ecosystem Monitoring Survey

From fish to plankton, hydrography and water chemistry

On a sunny afternoon on May 22 at 1400 hours, the FSV Henry Bigelow set sail from Naval Station Newport to embark on the 2019 Spring Ecosystem Monitoring Survey, conducted by the Oceans and Climate Branch of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC).  As is typical for these surveys, there are a number of objectives. Eight scientists are aboard from several different disciplines, conducting a variety of missions to collect data and samples from the shelf waters off the northeast U.S. coast.

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FSV Henry B. Bigelow at Pier 2 of Naval Station Newport, just prior to sailing. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jerry Prezioso

Unlike the bottom trawl surveys, where the focus is on processing fish from the trawl catches, here we are concentrating on plankton sampling, hydrography and water chemistry, so the fish lab has become our storage area, while the CTD and chemistry labs are packed with a variety of analytical equipment and computers.  Quite a change for the vessel!

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The Bigelow Fish Processing Lab has become the storage area for sampling gear and supplies. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jerry Prezioso

Now, on our third day of the voyage, we have completed fifteen stations, collecting plankton samples south of Narragansett Bay and west and south towards the coast of New Jersey with our bongo nets.  All along the cruise track water is being continuously pumped into the CTD lab and sampled and analyzed for CO2 levels, total alkalinity and optical properties, while video images of phytoplankton in the water are being recorded.

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The CTD Lab on the Bigelow is now also filled with a variety of analytical equipment to monitor CO2, total alkalinity, optical properties and record images of phytoplankton from the seawater that is pumped in by the Scientific Seawater System while the ship is underway. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jerry Prezioso


Deck hands Lindsey Houska (right) and Aaron Walton retrieving the plankton bongo nets after a sampling tow. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jerry Prezioso

The trip was punctuated with a previously scheduled calibration of the vessel’s computer-controlled Dynamic Positioning System, which automatically maintains a vessel’s position and heading by using its own propellers and thrusters, in Narragansett Bay. It took up a large part of our second day, but the command and crew are working hard to make up for that time.  We are now running smoothly on a course which should take us just beyond Delaware Bay for the southern portion of this trip. Good weather is helping too!

Jerry Prezioso
Chief Scientist
HB 1902 Spring Ecosystem Monitoring Survey

Natural light, fangs, and the g value

Sundown at sea viewed from stern of the Henry Bigelow

“Nothing beats the views from the boat1” Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Cassie Fries

Hello from the ocean! I’m Cassie Fries, a recent graduate from Stony Brook University. I’m part of the oceanography crew aboard the Bigelow, and this is my first time out on a research vessel. It took a few days to adjust, but I can finally say I have my sea legs.

This has been an incredible opportunity for me, since I’m learning real world applications for different areas of marine research. Being on this cruise has taught me so much in just two weeks; and nothing beats the views from the boat!

Oceanography is on the night shift, which means we find all types of creatures in our nets. For me, a lot of these creatures are foreign, or it’s my first time seeing them not in a photo! Sometimes, we even find things that we cannot identify at first. It changes with stations, but we get larval fish in our nets.

Shiny silver and blue fish with sparkling light organs

Lanternfish. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Cassie Fries

We have gotten Myctophids, which are commonly known as Lanternfish for their bioluminescence. At night, you can see their photophores along their body, which shimmer in the net. We have caught them at all sizes since they are one of the most common fish in the deeper layers of the sea.

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Dragonfish. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Cassie Fries

We have also caught crazy looking fish, like the Dragonfish! He is another deep-sea fish and he has a barbel that acts as a lure for him to attract prey.

As part of the oceanography team, it’s my job to titrate and find the g value of these animals, which is the ratio of density of the animal relative to the density of seawater. We do this by mixing seawater and a denser solution to find when the animal is neutrally buoyant . This is an important value to get, as bioacousticians need to model how much sound these animals scatter, which depends on how dense they are relative to the ocean.

We don’t just see fish in our nets, we also see small pteropods, salps, heteropods, amphipods, jellys, and larval crustaceans. There’s a whole lot going on in the water, especially on the zooplankton level. There is never a dull night with the oceanography crew!

Cassie Fries, Oceanography Team

Aboard the NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow


Animal surveillance

In our quest for turtles, we have traveled far and wide in the past 13 days. From Nova Scotia to New Jersey, we have kept almost constant watch during daylight hours in order to spot turtles basking in the sun, and in the process, we have seen many different marine creatures.

On July 8th, we awoke to pilot whales curious about the ship and they accompanied us for the entire morning.  A couple of days later, we crossed the Hague Line on the shelf of George’s Bank. Very soon after, we started seeing sperm whales,  some of them breaching – a behavior where they launch themselves  entirely out of the water landing in a large splash that we can see miles away! Sperm whales can dive to very deep depths and tend to inhabit waters around canyons. This habitat also attracts beaked whales, including Cuvier’s beaked whales which we also spotted. We saw more pilot whales and small groups of bottlenose dolphins, many of them jumping out of the water as well. Meanwhile, above the surface, we have encountered many pelagic seabirds that are expected in this area, including the shearwater, storm petrel, and gull species. This day we also had south polar skuas flying around the ship.


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We turned south on July 12th toward the mid-Atlantic and started to encounter larger numbers of common dolphins characterized by the hourglass pattern on the sides of their bodies. We have seen pods numbering in the hundreds out here so far, and they have given us great looks when they come in close to the ship.

Of course, the focus of this cruise is to find loggerhead turtles and we did encounter quite a few on July 13th. We spent a few days in the warmer waters off New Jersey working these animals where we also spotted a few leatherback turtles.

On July 16th, we turned to work our way north again and started our day with flat calm waters, the best sighting conditions so far. We saw many common dolphins, including a group of around 500, bottlenose dolphins, and many groups of Risso’s dolphins. The Risso’s are darker when they are younger, and lighten up (and gain some impressive scars) as they age.

In addition to the reptiles, mammals, and seabirds that we tend to see at the surface, there are of course, many fish species in the ocean. We have seen a lot of ocean sunfish along our entire track, a glance at a couple of rays, and also a few shark species including hammerheads, basking sharks, and three whale sharks on July 16th! This was a new species for almost everyone on board, and it took us a second to understand what we were seeing! Whale sharks are the largest fish, reaching lengths of over 40 feet, and feed on zooplankton by filter-feeding. They are characterized by their size, but also by the spots on their dorsal body which helped us identify the species.

Only a few days left out here, but many chances yet to spot additional animals.

Leah Crowe and Lisa Conger
NEFSC Protected Species Branch, aboard the NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow

More Tales from the Night Shift

Predator worms, spines with eyeballs, and a mystery

I’m Hannah Blair, a graduate student at Stony Brook University, aboard the NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow for the 2017 sea turtle and cetacean cruise.  This trip is my first foray into the world of zooplankton identification. Each night, we sift through the contents of targeted zooplankton trawls, pull individual plankton out of each sample collected by the nets, and measure and photograph what we find. I’ve slowly been learning to recognize the categories these tiny animals belong to. For example, we pull up lots and lots of chaetognaths, or arrow worms, a group of predatory worms!

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Carnivorous, predatory arrow worms that prey on other plankton. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Cassie Fries

We find many kinds of gelatinous animals, such as jellyfish, as well as a number of crustaceans, like these adorable bug-eyed megalops, an early crab life stage.

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Megalops, early life stage crab. Who doesn’t love those googly eyes? Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/ Cassie Fries

We also find fish larvae of various sizes and shapes, from the wide and flat larvae of flounder to fish so small they look like spines with eyeballs. After going through a few hauls, you start to recognize what animal belongs with what category.

And then, this guy appeared:

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There’s no zooplankton too odd for Betsy Broughton’s mad identification skills. Mystery solved and sea slug unmasked. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Joe Warren

The first time we saw it, we dismissed it as an unidentifiable piece of another animal. But then we got another, and another. When, on the third night, we got six in one haul, we had to stop and take a closer look.

As someone who’s spent many an hour identifying species, whether for classes or for surveys (or for fun), I am familiar with the frustration of not being able to figure out what species an animal or plant is, and the satisfaction of finally pinning it down. However, at first we couldn’t even determine what group of animals we should start narrowing down from! Was it a flatworm? Some type of echinoderm (starfish and relatives) larva?

After spending hours searching through identification keys and checking our trusty friend Google Images, our resident marine zooplankton expert Betsy Broughton was able to track it down. Meet Phylliroe bucephala, a free-swimming nudibranch!

Nudibranchs are a type of sea slug, and are a highly varied group. Searching the term (which I highly recommend, I love these guys) will bring up many photos of brightly-colored tropical sea slugs, crawling around on the ocean floor. But Phylliroe is pelagic, which means it lives up in the water column, swimming much like a fish as it searches for tasty jellyfish prey. Check out this link to see images and even a video of them swimming through the water!

We’ve found a lot of cool animals in our trawls, but this one is definitely my favorite so far.


Hannah Blair

Oceanography Team, aboard the NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow