Turtle Team and Oceanographers Do Mix

Bigelow scientific team at dinner

Here’s the team, at dinner before the first night on the boat: (around the table from the first on the left) Leah Crowe, Cassie Fries, Joe Warren, Eric Matzen, Michael James, Betsy Broughton, Samir Patel (obscured), Liese Siemann, Hannah Blair, Chrissy Hernandez).

Samir Patel here, turtle biologist aboard the Henry Bigelow for the 2017 Turtle and Cetacean cruise.   I am fortunate to have this opportunity to collaborate with many scientists from varying fields. As a sea turtle biologist, I do not typically conduct oceanographic surveys, or deploy acoustic recording devices, or sift through plankton in search of larval fish. However, we’re doing all of that.  This combination of researchers from government agencies, academia and non-profits means a cruise for turtle research becomes an opportunity to successfully integrate many research goals.

For the turtle research itself, the team consists of scientists from NEFSC, Department of Fisheries and Oceans-Canada, and Coonamessett Farm Foundation (CFF). The oceanographic work includes researchers from NEFSC, Stony Brook University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and CFF.

The goal of the sea turtle research is to sample a population of turtles that is typically difficult to encounter.  Using our combined resources, we hope to achieve this difficult goal. We expect turtles in this region to be smaller and forage higher in the water column than those encountered in the Mid-Atlantic Bight, for example.  There, through collaboration with NEFSC and CFF, we have caught and tagged more than 100 loggerhead turtles. We also expect the density to be lower than in the Mid-Atlantic Bight, thus communication and additional collaboration with local fishermen is key to providing intel on where we might encounter loggerheads.


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For the oceanographic sampling, collaboration allows the use of the same tools to help solve multiple problems. By towing neuston and bongo nets that are sampling at varying parts of the water column, several research questions can be addressed. First, what plankton are found in these regions and under these environmental conditions, specifically, in the frontal zones between warm and cold waters? Second, are there any particular fish larvae found in the plankton that would help us improve understanding of the spawning locations? Third, can we use video recording to measure the presence of gelatinous zooplankton in the water, a major food source for leatherback turtles and, occasionally, loggerhead turtles as well?

If not for the diversity of collaborators, our goals and objectives during this leg would be very limited; however through strong collaboration, we can address many research questions and bring many scientists together.

Samir Patel, Coonamessett Farm Foundation

Aboard the NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow

Oceanography After Dark

Oceanography After Dark

July 10, 2017 — Hello from the Night’s Watch !  Unlike Jon Snow and his buddies on Game of Thrones, the night watch  on the ship are the folks who work between sunset and sunrise while the turtle-spotting scientists (and probably you) are asleep. It takes a day or two to get your body/brain to switch over to night-time as your working time, but a lot of very cool stuff happens at night.

I’m a bioacoustician. That means I use sound to study the marine environment.  One of my primary tools is an echosounder, which works much like a fish-finder or depth-finder you may have seen on a boat at some point.  Our equipment works similarly to those, it sends out a short pulse of sound (“a ping”) and then we listen for the echoes that come back. The ship we are on (NOAA’s Henry Bigelow) has a very nice, five-frequency, hull-mounted echosounder and as we drive around the ocean, we can see where different fish and plankton (small animals that can’t swim against a current very well) are located in the water column.


This is an echogram showing where organisms are located in the water column. The five windows show the five different frequencies (or wavelengths) of sound. Different wavelengths can detect some animals better than others. The blue dots represent a layer of animals that are located at different depths in the upper 100 m of the water column. We try to target a specific layer (or depth) when we deploy our nets). Photo Courtesy Joe Warren/Stony Brook University

We use this information to determine at what depths we send our nets down to collect samples of these organisms.  And there’re A LOT of very cool animals that live in the ocean – most of which you probably have never seen or heard of.  One of my students will be blogging about some of these later on.

People washing out large plankton net on deck

Scientist are washing down the net after we bring it back on board the vessel, so that we make sure that we get all the animals in the net into our sample that we process inside the boat in the wet lab. Photo Courtesy Joe Warren/Stony Brook University

Once we have these animals on the boat, we take a small number of them and measure their density (how much they sink or float relative to seawater) and their soundspeed (how fast sound moves through them), and photograph them with a ruler for scale so we know their shape and size.  We use these data to determine how much sound would reflect off a single animal.  With this information, we can convert the echoes (blue dots in the echogram) to how many animals there were beneath the boat.  This process can get very complicated if there are lots of different types of animals in the water – but in many cases we can use the acoustics to map out where the animals are relative to the different types of water we’re encountering.

In our nets, we find lots of different animals :

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(Photos Courtesy Joe Warren/Stony Brook University)

Our cruise track for the past few days has us (at night) going in and out of a warm core ring, which is a chunk of water from the Gulf Stream (so it’s warm and salty) that has spun away from the Gulf Stream and is now traveling up along Georges Bank (southeast of Cape Cod).  What’s really interesting about sampling this warm core ring is that you can find completely different sets of animals when you do a tow inside or outside of the ring.  So you can find tropical species in one tow, and more typical species for coastal New England in the next tow depending on where the ship is.

Color coded chart of ocean water surface temperatures off the Northeatern U.S.

This is a map of sea surface temperatures that are collected by a satellite in space, and made available by scientists at Rutgers University. The left side of the orange-blob of water at the far right-hand side of the image is where we are working currently. This satellite can’t see through clouds so the maps that we get are a function of the weather conditions as well. (Photo Courtesy Joe Warren/Stony Brook University)

Thanks for reading about our science,

Joe Warren

Stony Brook University

Aboard the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow for the 2017 Cetacean and Turtle Cruise

Stayin’ Alive

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Chris Gallagher (left) and Andy Reynaga (center), in the wheelhouse of the Gloria Michelle. Andy and Chris are OMAO officers who operate the boatPhoto by NOAA/NEFSC/Kristy Owen

For once, we needed live fish at the end of a cruise

Collecting cold-water species for the Woods Hole Science Aquarium is always a challenge.  It’s not that they are rare, it’s that they are hard to keep alive from capture to quarantine for display. The crew of the NEFSC small research vessel Gloria Michelle were about to do a short cruise, beginning field testing of newly designed trawl doors for the upcoming shrimp survey.  When I got a chance to tag along to test a kind of portable live well, I was in.

Industry folks never liked the old doors because of their size and design they no longer used, so Pete Chase of the survey branch talked with a number of industry members about the types of doors they used. Nearly all said Bison doors, which trawlworks in New Bedford agreed with, and both industry members and trawlworks provided recommendations for sizing to match the Gloria Michelle’s net. We ended up with size 7+ Bison doors, and brought along a commercial fisherman who has many years of experience with said doors to help us test and tune the new doors.  As Pete Chase notes, “We tested a number of different settings on the doors and experimented in a variety of depths. We are now confident that the doors are properly tuned and are fishing the net optimally.”

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Deploying the redesigned shrimp trawl doors, R/V Gloria Michelle. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Kristy Owen


Sensor package used to document performance of the new doors. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Kristy Owen

The first day of door testing started around 0630. Several tows were performed at 150’ — we were near Stellwagen Bank…I could see Boston. The next day we were towing at 250’ on Stellwagen. The measurements for the spread were so consistent we were able to call the trip a success and head back to Woods Hole.

While  this was going on,  I was testing my gear as well.  The Gloria Michelle does not have a live well, so my few days (and first time!) at sea were used to find the best way to collect and keep the fish wanted alive.   I brought two coolers, a number of ice packs, a dissolved oxygen meter, an oxygen tank and several collection bottles for water-quality testing back at the aquarium’s lab. There were many failures (deaths!) and some success, as expected but there were also lessons learned.  I have already figured out some ways to make the next trip more successful. In the end, I returned with several species of invertebrates and four goosefish, which the aquarium has not displayed in more than ten years.


Experimental portable live well with flatfish. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Kristy Owen

Other lessons learned were that even though you have never been seasick  (I do have boating experience) that does not necessarily mean you will never get seasick! Therefore, lesson learned…drink lots of water (because you are working hard); do not eat a whole package of Oreo cookies, and Ziploc bags come in handy for many uses.

On our way back to Woods Hole we saw several basking sharks feeding at the surface and humpback whales breaching of in the distance. Overall, my first time at sea on a NOAA vessel was a great experience. I was able to collect animals for the aquarium, my primary mission, but also to meet and work side-by-side with people I have only seen in passing or never at all. I look forward to my next trip!

Kristy Owen
Senior Aquarist
Woods Hole Science Aquarium

Why We Are Sampling During the Transit on the Southeast Shelf

Some have asked why we are sampling on our transit on the southeast US shelf.  Many species fished in the northeast may spawn or in some other way originate in the southeast.  For example, chub mackerel (Scomber colias) adults are fished in the northeast, but larvae have not been collected in our 40 years of sampling the shelf north of Cape Hatteras.  Also, historically southeastern species, such as blueline tilefish (Caulolatilus microps), are beginning to occur in the northeast so regularly that fisheries are emerging in the northeast. Like the Slope Sea, this region has had relatively little plankton sampling as compared to the northeast US shelf and Gulf of Mexico.

There has been sampling on the southeast shelf; with ichthyoplankton (eggs and larvae of fish) collections going back at least to 1965-1968 from the R/V Dolphin cruises.  There have also been a couple of monitoring and collaborative research programs. The Marine Resources Monitoring, Assessment and Prediction (MARMAP) program sampled portions of the southeast shelf in the 1970s and 1980s.  During the 1990s and early-2000s, sampling was conducted from South Carolina to southern Virginia as part of the South Atlantic Bight Recruitment Experiment (SABRE).  So, the absence of data points in the map below is due to infrequent sampling and also highlights the need to compile historic data to allow us to compare the past to the present.  A new collaborative effort between the Oceans and Climate Branch from the NEFSC and the SEAMAP Plankton group from the Southeast Fisheries Science Center is beginning to compile these data and attempt to fill in gaps and compare historical data with current conditions with cruises like this.

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Map of ichthyoplankton collection locations on the east coast of the US and Gulf of Mexico with the location of bongo tows represented by red dots.  The map is a product of the Fish Larvae Explorer (FLEx) project, which is a collaborative product of the NOAA Fisheries And The Environment (FATE) and Coastal & Oceanic Plankton Ecology, Production & Observation Database (COPEPOD) projects.  FLEx was created to develop the use of ichthyoplankton time series as indicators of ecosystem status and to enhance ecosystem-based fishery management.

We are sampling some cross-shelf transects on our transit south to compare with historical collections.  Our first transect in Onslow Bay, North Carolina,  along a frequently sampled transect from the SABRE project will provide important data on how distributions and oceanographic conditions are changing over time.  We plan to collect as many plankton samples as possible before docking in Cape Canaveral on June 23.

Harvey Walsh
Chief Scientist
NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter  GU 1702




Storms and strong currents end Slope Sea operations

The Slope Sea portion of this cruise ended a little early due to storms and strong currents, but will provide important information on this poorly understood region of the ocean.  We did not complete our entire planned cruise track for the Slope Sea, but we did complete 84 stations in the northeast for a total of 133 bongo and CTD tows and 13 water casts.  The bongos will be used for our plankton analyses, including our hunt for bluefin tuna larvae.

Plankton sampling continued to catch scombrid larvae, including a few more potential bluefin larvae. We never hit a large enough patch to justify releasing drifters. We will save the drifters for another cruise that leaves in two weeks for the Slope Sea.  The water samples from the water casts will be sent off for dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) and total alkalinity analyses. Both DIC and total alkalinity are used by chemical oceanographers to estimate pH of the water, and examine current ocean acidification conditions of the ecosystem. The basic hydrographic data collected (temperature and salinity by depth) will be used to define ocean features in the Slope Sea and to help ground truth satellite data.

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Picture of a recently caught 8-mm long little tunny (Euthynnus alletteratus) larvae.  Larval scombrids eat other larval fish, as seen by the larvae in the stomach of the little tunny / bonito.  Photo credit: Ciara Willis, Dalhousie University

washing down bongo nets

Ciara (front) and Chris (middle) wash down the bongo nets as ENS Fuller (back) prepares for a water cast.  Photo credit: Harvey Walsh, NOAA/NEFSC.

Weather and sea conditions required an adjustment to our planned cruise track, moving inshore one evening when winds and seas along the Gulf Stream made bongo sampling difficult.  We normally send the bongo down to 200 meters deep ( about 660 feet), and use about 280 to 300-meters of wire, and still could not get the net to that depth.  On the final tow of the evening, we deployed over 400 meters of wire and still could not get the net below a depth of 150 meters ( about 480 feet).

Like flying a kite on a breezy day, the current was pushing the net up with too much force or lift to overcome with our standard weight.  The ship’s bridge and crew were safely able to deploy and tow the gear, but the sea conditions wouldn’t allow for us to collect samples that we could compare to all the others we had collected. After we moved inshore to escape the strong current, we continued to see a highly diverse plankton community in the waters just offshore of our standard sampling locations during EcoMon.

plankton in bogo sample

Plankton collected in a bongo sample about 30 miles north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.  The sample had squid paralarvae and fish larvae including: common dolphinfish (Coryphaena hippurus), shoal / dusky flounder (Syacium spp.), and unidentified gobies (Gobiidae).  Photo credit: Ciara Willis, Dalhousie University

Even though we moved inshore, we could not escape the thunderstorms that were moving through the area. We had suspended operations at a station just north of Cape Hatteras due to lightning in the area. Have you ever wondered if lightning strikes the ocean? A few minutes after we arrived at the inshore station there was a very close strike, or the ship was struck by lightning ( it depends on who you ask).  Everyone on board was safe, but we lost gyros and some other electronics.  We steamed on to the next station, the second to last scheduled for the northeast part of the cruise, as the ship’s Electronics Technician (ET) began repairing systems.  We discovered that the CTD would not talk to the computer when we resumed operations at the next station. Wherever the lightning hit, our science gear did not escape the damage.

We decided to move down to the southeast shelf, south of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to escape the marginal weather, and the unknown amount of time it would take to diagnose and fix the CTD problem.  Thankfully, the CTD was repaired on the transit south thanks to the persistence and skill of Betsy Broughton (NEFSC scientist) and Kirk Andreopoulos (ET on the Gordon Gunter).  We will continue to explore poorly understood parts of the western Atlantic during the second half of this cruise, this time in the waters off the southeast United States coast.

Check back on to read about what and why we are studying the ocean south of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

Harvey Walsh
Chief Scientist
NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter  GU 1702

Plankton Ops

The plankton sampling team for this cruise is made up of six researchers from NOAA Fisheries and regional universities.  Each 12-hour watch has a team of three people, so that we can sample day and night.  Betsy Broughton (NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC), Christine Hernandez (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution [WHOI]), and Quentin Nichols (NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC summer intern, UMass Amherst) staff the night watch, 3-pm to 3-am.  Ciara Willis (WHOI summer intern, Dalhousie University), Chris Gingrich (NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC summer intern, Washington College) and I stand the morning watch, 3-am to 3-pm.

There are still a lot of questions about this area as a spawning ground for Atlantic Bluefin tuna.  One of the research questions being addressed on this cruise is how the currents of the Slope Sea affect the planktonic larval stage of bluefin tuna.  Plankton are organisms that rely on the wind and ocean currents to move through the ocean (from the tiny algae and small amphipods to larval fish and crustaceans to jellyfish). We are hoping to find patches of larval bluefin tuna where we can release drifters that will track the movements of the water surrounding the larvae as they grow.

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Christine Hernandez (front) and Ciara Willis (back) sort samples in the lab as the samples are brought on board.  They also take pictures of larvae for us to post (see images below).

At each station, we sort a small portion of the sample we just collected for any fish larvae we can find.  The larvae we’re looking for are tiny, 2-10mm (about 1/16 – 3/8 of an inch) long, so we need to use microscopes. We also have to work fast, so we don’t drift too far from where the larvae were caught. We have found one potential Bluefin larvae already, which we will verify with DNA analysis.  We are hoping to find a larger patch to justify releasing the drifters.  We’ve also seen plenty of cousins of Bluefin including bullet or frigate mackerel (Auxis spp.).

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Picture of a fresh caught larval bullet / frigate mackerel.  These are small cousins of the bluefin that are found in surface waters of the open ocean.

The influence of the warm Gulf Stream waters can be seen in the diversity of the fish community caught in the bongo nets.  In addition to the tuna and mackerels, we are catching more tropical and subtropical species like driftfishes (family Nomeidae) and eyed flounder (Bothus spp.).

larval driftfish

juvenile driftfish

Larval (top) and juvenile (bottom) driftfish caught in the bongo nets.  Driftfishes are open ocean (pelagic) species, often associated with drifting algae like sargassum or jellyfish, particularly as juveniles. Photos of fishes by Christine Hernandez and Ciara Willis.

Harvey Walsh
Chief Scientist
NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter, GU1702

Seeing some interesting seabirds, marine mammals and sea turtles

Over the past six days, observers Timothy White and Glen Davis have been working together from sunrise to sunset to collect abundance and distribution data of seabirds, marine mammals and sea turtles from the Gunter’s flying bridge. This project is an extension of the Atlantic Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species (AMAPPS), which is an ongoing partnership between BOEM and NOAA. Timothy and Glen report high diversity and abundance in transitional waters and zones characterized by steep temperature and salinity gradients.


Observers Timothy White (right) and Glen Davis (left) at work on the flying bridge.

The following species list is rapidly growing and includes unique seabirds not often observed on the shelf:  Trinidade Petrel, White-tailed Tropicbird, Black-capped Petrel, Brown Booby, South Polar Skua, Manx Shearwater, Arctic and Common Terns, Pomarine Jaeger, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, Audubon’s Shearwater, Leach’s and Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, and Cory’s and Great Shearwaters — the last four are notably migrating to the north widely through the area.


Numerous Great (left) and Cory’s Shearwaters (right) have been observed migrating north over Gulf Stream waters.  Great Shearwaters breed on sub-Antarctic islands. Cory’s Shearwaters breed in warmer waters on islands in the eastern Atlantic.  Both species are abundant on Georges Bank in summer where they feed on fish. Photo by Glen Davis.


Endangered black-capped petrels (white-faced morph pictured) were observed on multiple days over well-mixed waters. Photo by Glen Davis.

brown booby

A 1st year Brown Booby from the Caribbean. Photo by Glen Davis.

storm petrels

Band-rumped storm petrels originate on islands in the eastern Atlantic and are abundant in the Gulf Stream. Photo by Glen Davis.

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A 1st year Pomarine Jaeger molting feathers.  This bird was born in the Arctic. At sea, Pomarine Jaegers are kleptoparasitic, which means they pirate food from other seabirds.Photo by Glen Davis.

As of June 15, marine mammals sightings include: Sperm Whales, Killer Whales, Striped, Atlantic Spotted, and Bottlenose Dolphins. Loggerhead Sea Turtles have also been observed.

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These striped dolphins were members of a large pod that consisted of ~ 200 individuals. Photo by Glen Davis.


A loggerhead sea turtle in warm, blue Gulf Stream water. Photo by Glen Davis.

Tim White
Aboard the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter, GU1702