Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Featured Scientist: Meet Kristen!

Our annual surveys would not be possible without our wonderful collaborators from around the world. We'll dedicate several future blog posts to highlight these individuals, so that you can learn more about them, their research, and the valuable contributions they make to the survey. You can find previous posts here. Today we feature Kristen Ewen from the University of the Virgin Islands!

My name is Kristen Ewen, and I'm a first year Masters Student at the University of the Virgin Islands!
Kristen deploys a biodegradable drifter

My thesis project looks to model population connectivity of large bodied parrotfish of the genus Scarus within the USVI. The reason why we are focused on parrotfish is because they are one of the largest herbivores on Caribbean reefs. They remove excess algae which allows for coral dominated reefs. These fish are also delicious! Which makes them a huge staple in the artisanal fisheries of the territory. However, their populations have declined recently, primarily due to overfishing, reducing their contribution to these ecosystem services.  To better manage this genus, computer models can be developed to take larval fish found in the water column and trace them back to where they were born.  These sites where these fish are reproducing can then be protected to increase the chance of repopulating the surrounding reefs.

Kristen communicates from inside the wet lab with the winch operator, the back deck, and the bridge during a net tow

Since I am using the larval fish data collected on this cruise, I wanted to come aboard to really understand the collection process rather then just reading about it.  From this experience aboard the Nancy Foster I now have the complete story. I may have come for the sampling methods, but stayed for the cute baby parrotfish!

Beast mode! Kristen flexes her muscles on the back deck

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Featured Scientist: Meet Sennai!

Our annual surveys would not be possible without our wonderful collaborators from around the world. We'll dedicate several future blog posts to highlight these individuals, so that you can learn more about them, their research, and the valuable contributions they make to the survey. You can find previous posts here. Today we feature Sennai Habtes from the University of the Virgin Islands!

Sennai Habtes has been a longtime collaborator with the FORCES lab, since his days as a PhD student. We are always excited to get to sail with him each year! Sennai is a Research Assistant Professor of Biological Oceanography at the Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, University of the Virgin Islands.

"This year I am working with the scientists of the NOAA SEFSC, Dr. Dan Otis from the University of South Florida, and Dr. David Lindo from the City University of New York, to understand how physical oceanographic processes affect larval dispersal around spawning periods. We are particularly interested in two phenomena: where do grouper larvae go after they are spawned, and how the oceanographic conditions surrounding high biological productivity areas in the USVI and Puerto Rico have an impact. Myctoperca venenosa, or the Yellowfin Grouper, spawn approximately 8-10 days after the full moon from January until April, at spawning aggregations sites along the shelf surrounding the USVI (primarily along the Gramanik Bank, on the South Drop). Although we routinely sample for larval fish during the times of year when grouper are actively spawning around the USVI, we have very little luck catching these larvae. We believe this may because they target zones with particular currents that transport the larvae below the surface. During this cruise we are using specialized nets called a MOCNESS (Multiple Openning and Closing Net Environmental Sampling System) to sample the area surrounding the spawning aggregations. This will allow us to determine where in the water column these larvae are transported.

Grouper larva, ~5mm length
Photo credit: FORCES Lab
"Additionally, we are targeting Lang Bank on St. Croix, to determine how oceanographic conditions, which support a high biological region there, influence the transport of larval fish. Along with our traditional measurements of oceanographic conditions, and net sampling of zooplankton and ichthyoplankton (larval fish) we are also using satellite imagery to identify interesting features that may help in either transporting the larvae faster or retaining them in coastal areas surrounding the USVI. These are two smaller studies that we have implemented in this years cruise to help understand how the coastal oceanography around the USVI and PR affect larval recruitment (addition of new fish into adult populations) and connectivity (transport, ultimately allowing for better management of marine fish populations in the Eastern Caribbean."

Satellite image shows the oceanography of the US Virgin Islands, with tracks of the drifters deployed on NF-17-03.
Image courtesy of Dr. Dan Otis - Institute for Marine Remote Sensing USF-CMS

For more on Sennai’s research see his faculty webpage at UVI:
or this recent news post from the team at the VI-EPSCoR program about Sennai’s background and his research:

Monday, April 24, 2017

Featured Scientist: Meet Sarah!

Our annual surveys would not be possible without our wonderful collaborators from around the world. We'll dedicate several future blog posts to highlight these individuals, so that you can learn more about them, their research, and the valuable contributions they make to the survey. You can find previous posts here. Today we feature Sarah Heidmann from the University of the Virgin Islands!

Sarah (L) and Jess sort some live plankton samples on board!
My name is Sarah Heidmann, and I'm a second-year Masters student in Marine and Environmental Sciences at the University of the Virgin Islands. I'm originally from California and completed my undergraduate degree at Oregon State, both of which shaped my interest in the ocean, marine science, and SCUBA diving. 

Giovanni (L) and Sarah deploy cod ends for the MOCNESS tow. Photo credit: LTJG Niki Norton
My time on this cruise is thanks to my committee member and mentor, Sennai Habtes. I'm excited to be immersed in living and working on the ocean, experiencing life on a ship and participating in oceanographic research. It's a nice change from my own work, which involves nearshore fishing and diving. I am using acoustic tracking technology to study the movements of mutton snapper in a bay on St. Thomas, as well as at a spawning aggregation on St. Croix. 

You can follow me on Twitter (@SarahLHeidmann) to get updates on my research!

The St. Thomas crew! L-R: Kristen, Sarah, Sennai, Vanessa, and Alexis! T-shirt design by Kat Dale

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Featured Scientist: Meet Jess!

Our annual surveys would not be possible without our wonderful collaborators from around the world. We'll dedicate several future blog posts to highlight these individuals, so that you can learn more about them, their research, and the valuable contributions they make to the survey. You can find previous posts here. Today we feature Jess Scicchigno from CUNY College of Staten Island!

Jess poses with the CTD
Hi!  My name is Jessica Scicchigno and I'm going to take you on a bit of an academic wild ride.  I am currently going to graduate from the CUNY College of Staten Island in June 2017.  I am graduating with an English Bachelor of Arts and a Psychology Bachelor of Science with a minor in Geology.  So how  did an English major end up on a NOAA cruise? I'm glad you asked.

I met Professor David Lindo-Atichati in a meteorology class he was teaching at my college.  I would come into class beaming with excitement over earth science disciplines, a subject I have always been interested in. This excitement was noticed and Professor Lindo invited me on a NOAA research survey he was involved with.  I was always a huge NOAA fan and this was something I always wanted to do.  Naturally, I could not say no.  Now I am on my first oceanic cruise.

So what do I want to get out of this? I want to learn as much as possible about the instruments used to collect data.  Science is taken for granted - scientists on this ship literally work day and night.  We work in rough seas.  We work rain or shine.  We do also get sea sick!  I want to learn how to work the equipment and gain an appreciation for data collection.  You truly do not know how difficult it can be until you're doing it yourself. Simply seeing a piece of equipment in a picture can no longer do it justice after this experience.  

Ready to deploy the Bongo net -
hard hat, PFD, and tether? Check!
In addition to that, I want to know more about the Caribbean currents and how the ocean is "setup" in this region.  I want to know how the biology is influenced by this and what biology is here! Just from taking the samples with nets we have seen some amazing creatures. I want to learn, partly, the day to day life of creatures here.  When do they migrate? What do the other scientists here know about grouper migrations or spawn sites? What fish are common in what areas?  I have always loved fish, and being surrounded by people who love them just as much as I do is nothing short of amazing.  It's even more amazing to learn from them - both fish and people.

Although I have taken a very unusual path, the dreaming teenager in me could not help but tear up at the initial sight of the gorgeous Nancy Foster, sitting at the dock at 2 AM when I arrived.  This surreal atmosphere has led me back to the sciences, and I want to go deeper into oceanography for sure after this cruise.  I always wanted to do this - now I just want to do it again.

Jess models her survival "Gumby" suit during an Abandon Ship drill

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Coral Reef Fish in USVI: Where do they come from?

Figure showing the dominant flow modes a) cyclonic
 and b) anticyclonic flows around St. Croix
(Source: AMSEAS Model)
If you've ever been to the Caribbean, you've seen white sand beaches and clear blue waters - perfect for snorkeling and SCUBA diving to see the coral reef systems beneath the surface. These reefs demonstrate incredible diversity of fish, crustaceans, cephalopods, and many other organisms. As larval fish biologists and oceanographers, we are interested in where coral reef fish spawn, and the oceanographic processes that transport larvae to their ultimate settling location, the coral reefs.

Though the US Virgin Islands are relatively small, the oceanographic features surrounding them can be quite complex. The southern-most island, St. Croix, is geographically isolated 50km from the northern islands by a 4000m-deep trough, and we hypothesize
that its position affects how waters flow into and around the northern islands (St. Thomas and St. John).

We devised a sampling plan which should help us understand the flow near the shelf break south of St. Thomas and St. John, specifically if there is connectivity between inshore and offshore areas, or if there is a barrier between them.

L-R: Sennai, Jess, Tanya, and Dan throw SVP drifters off the stern.

Our stations are positioned at inshore, slope, and offshore locations:
A plankton sample!
Photo credit: LTJG Norton
  • Oceanographic Eulerian data: ADCP, CTD, and XBTs will provide data on the temperature, salinity, and velocities of the water column being sampled. With water velocities we will be able to calculate potential vorticity, which will give us an idea of the ability of the flow to spin. These instruments sample from the surface to the ocean floor! Our Eulerian metrics are important to better understand the physical nature of the inshore and offshore environments where our fish larvae live. 
  • Oceanographic Lagrangian data: SVP and biodegradable drifters will be deployed at each segment on the transects, and will transmit through satellite a time series of speed and direction of the currents. We are deploying the drifters in pairs to be able to compute relative dispersion, which is a measurement of the separation of two surface particles (e.g. larvae) drifting in the ocean. Our Lagrangian metrics are important to better understand the inshore and offshore transport of our fish larvae. 
  • Biological data: Bongo plankton nets will be towed, sampling from the surface to the ocean floor. Fish larvae from these samples will give us an idea as to what species of reef fish are spawning in these areas. These biological metrics are also important to quantify how the nature and transport within inshore and offshore environments affect fish larvae.  
  • Oceanographic data: ADCP, CTD, and XBTs will provide data on the temperature, salinity, and potential vorticity of the water column being sampled. These instruments sample from the surface to the ocean floor!
The CTD is brought back on the ship by ST Stephanie
Photo credit: LTJG Norton

We are very excited to see the results of this study! Upon completion, we will be able to better understand the specific mechanisms which drive interactions between fisheries and the environment in the USVI, and hopefully be able to gauge the effectiveness of current fisheries management strategies, while developing methods for improvement. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Featured Scientist: Meet Vanessa!

Our annual surveys would not be possible without our wonderful collaborators from around the world. We'll dedicate several future blog posts to highlight these individuals, so that you can learn more about them, their research, and the valuable contributions they make to the survey. You can find previous posts here. Today we feature Vanessa McKague from the University of the Virgin Islands!

Vanessa runs the CTD in the dry lab on Easter Sunday
Hi everyone! I'm Vanessa McKague, Oceanographic Technician from the University of the Virgin Islands! I am also a new mother of an 8 month old boy.  Having a child really changes so much in your life and most of all your priorities change dramatically.  But because I love my job and what I do, I wouldn't want to have to choose between them. I am learning as I go along but I am trying my best to be both a great mother and a productive scientist. I love being an Oceanographic Technician because I get to do all of the hands on science that I love. I work with many oceanographic instruments (i.e., CTDs, ADCPs) and perform calibrations and maintenance as well as program them for deployments and process the data. On this cruise I have been running the CTD rosette.  I work in the dry lab on the computer using Seasave software to view the ocean profile data in real time and to collect water samples in the niskin bottles at the surface and at the deep chlorophyll maximum.

Vanessa decked out in safety gear on the back deck.
At UVI, I work with Dr. Sennai Habtes (who is also on this cruise) in the Oceanography Laboratory.  One great opportunity that I recently had was to take a Larval Fish Identification Course.  I have not had previous experience doing this so it was such a great learning experience for me.  It was very hands on and we all had microscopes to look at all of the samples.  My favorite part of the course was taking an unknown sample and using the skills that we had gained to identify the larval fish species.

Colton helps Mom learn how to identify larval fish! 
What I want to get out of the cruise: Deploying the mooring for the relocation of the St. Thomas CariCOOS/VI-EPSCoR oceanographic buoy. The original location was south of St. Thomas, but now we will have real time oceanographic data northwest of St. Thomas.  It will be the first oceanographic buoy located north of the Virgin Islands in the Atlantic Ocean!  We successfully deployed the anchor and chain with surface buoy markers on the first day of the cruise.  We will then go back out on a calm day in a smaller vessel and use commercial divers to attach the buoy and inspect the site.

Secondly, I just want to be out to sea doing science!  This is one of the best parts of my job and I look forward to this opportunity.  It is a time to focus on collecting data and to talk to other scientists without interruptions of everyday life.  We are all living out here together so there are plenty opportunities to learn from each other and to come up with new ideas and projects for future work.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The weather started getting rough....

....the tiny ship was tossed!

Jason and Alexis deploy the CTD using tag lines
Working in the Caribbean is usually filled with picturesque islands, clear skies, and flat seas, but sometimes a weather system comes through that changes all that! The last few days we've experienced some big waves and windy conditions, and slightly altered our course to try to stay in more protected waters. We want to ensure the safety of everyone on board, as well as protect our delicate plankton nets and sensitive instruments.

Sara and Jason are ready to hook the CTD for recovery
Though we always have certain safety measures in place, we'll make some changes once the weather starts to turn. Everything on the ship needs to be carefully secured. We use tag lines to keep instruments steady during deployment and use hooks for recovery. We sometimes even have to change our course to avoid bad weather. This week, we diverted our trackline inshore to avoid wind speeds of 30 knots!

Weather is just one of the many factors we have to consider while sampling at sea!

Giovanni ducks to avoid a wave crashing on the back deck! 

Jason and Alexis weren't so lucky - they got drenched while rinsing down the Bongo net!

Thankfully, at the end of every storm is a sunrise like this:
Sunrise off the bow. Photo credit: LTJG Niki Norton

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Featured Scientist: Meet Giovanni!

Our annual surveys would not be possible without our wonderful collaborators from around the world. We'll dedicate several future blog posts to highlight these individuals, so that you can learn more about them, their research, and the valuable contributions they make to the survey. Today we feature Giovanni Seijo-Ellis from the University of Puerto Rico - Mayaguez!

Giovanni successfully completes a 1500-meter CTD cast
Hi everyone! My name is Giovanni Seijo-Ellis, I'm a physics masters student at the University of Puerto Rico - Mayaguez, and I'm starting my PhD next fall at the City University of New York's Graduate Center with Dr. David Lindo.

I always knew that I wanted to work on something related to the oceans and as I grew up that interest grew bigger. When I found out as a young teenager that there is a field called physical oceanography, I felt I was born for it. Back in Puerto Rico there are no undergraduate programs in oceanography, so I decided to go into Theoretical Physics, took some advanced oceanography courses and complemented it with atmospheric dynamics courses. I worked for three and a half years for the Puerto Rico Seismic Network doing tsunami simulations and hazard assessments under a National Tsunami Hazard and Mitigation Program grant. 

Ready to launch the XBT!
Then I moved to work with the Caribbean Coastal Ocean Observing System (CariCOOS), the Caribbean Component of NOAA's Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS). There I work as an ocean modeler. I basically work with validation and development of ocean models for the Caribbean region in order to have better forecasts of ocean currents and I also prepare some operational products for the CariCOOS webpage users. Besides that, I also do storm surge simulation and mapping with special focus on energy distribution over coral reefs along the northern and eastern part of Puerto Rico. Every now and then I help in CariCOOS field work (which is probably my favorite thing to do), deploying CTDs, and deploying/recovering sea gliders or anything else that comes up. 

One of the homemade biodegradable
CariCOOS drifters
I met Dr. Lindo some months ago and we quickly noticed that we had many research interests in common, so I decided to apply to CUNY's Earth and Environmental Sciences program where we could work together and I could reach my goal of getting a PhD. A couple of weeks after, he called me to see if I was interested in participating on a research cruise...of course I was interested!!!! Our goal is to understand the cross-shelf exchange of waters between St. Thomas and St. Croix. Ocean circulation/currents in the Caribbean is not as easy to understand as one may think. The rapid variation of the bathymetry has a huge effect on ocean currents and waves which makes it a challenge to model accurately and many mesoscale features are also common in this region. So, does water from south of the shelf break cross to the shallower part north of the shelf break? Or does it move along the shelf break? Or do the shallow water cross into the deeper waters? How does this affect larval dispersal in the region? 

These are some of the questions that will help us understand what is happening in this part of the Caribbean and how it affects larval dispersal near the shelf break, especially on the Grammanik and Hind Banks. To accomplish this we will use data obtained from 8 SVP drifters, 4 Bio-degradable drifters (home-made by CariCOOS), 22 XBT launches, and CTD deployments. The use of plankton nets will allow us to collect fish larvae at different water depths and potentially trace back to their place of origin. 

It's away! Positioning the XBT launcher during deployment
So here I am, learning a lot and enjoying every second. So far it has been an amazing experience, the crew and the science team are wonderful. Everyone on the science team is just great, they are really open to hear any suggestions and really care for everyone to learn how to do everything around here. Doesn't matter if you're an undergrad or graduate student, with or without experience in the field, here you are a scientist and will be treated as one. We are all equal, and that makes it really comfortable for such a diverse group to work together successfully. 

While not working, I really enjoy sailing either on a Catalina 30 sailboat, racing on a J30 or J24 or just relaxing near a pond and sail my radio control sailboat. I also do cross-country mountain biking and ride my MTB to work at least once a week. I really hope and look forward to be able to come back on board the Nancy Foster with this amazing team in years to come!


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Leading Off

This type of buoy will be attached to the mooring
The first event or "op" of the survey was deploying a mooring! Moorings are devices that are usually hooked up to stationary wire that is secured to the sea floor. This mooring will serve as an anchor for the University of the Virgin Island’s real-time oceanographic data buoy. This buoy is part of the larger CariCOOS System (Caribbean Coastal Ocean Observing System), which conducts operational oceanography and ocean observing.

This buoy will be positioned on the northwest shelf of St. Thomas, and will collect real time measurements of:
  • air temperature
  • wind speed & direction
  • wave height & direction
  • sea temperature 
  • salinity
  • density
  • velocity of ocean currents
  • turbidity
  • chlorophyll
  • dissolved oxygen 

Officers, crew, and scientists work together to deploy the mooring, chain, and floats.
The chain was snaked back and forth on deck to allow safe deployment. 

The floats will help divers attach the buoy to the chains.
With the crew of the Nancy Foster, we were able to deploy the 2,500-pound (1,134 kg) concrete anchor and 300-foot chain, which will be paired with the oceanographic buoy by local divers later this month. Deployments like these can be very dangerous, so the scientists, crew, and officers had several safety meetings to devise the safest technique for deployment. The anchor was deployed by one of the ship's cranes, and the chain was carefully arranged on deck so that it smoothly and safely fed into the water once the anchor was dropped. Each person involved had a specific role and position on deck. Check out a video of the deployment below!

You can find historic data collected by the buoy available at

Monday, April 17, 2017

Welcome Aboard NF-17-03!

Welcome back to another exciting year at sea!

NOAA Ship Nancy Foster in Brewers Bay, St. Thomas, USVI
The FORCES Lab at the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center (SEFSC) invites you to join us again as we board the Nancy Foster and experience the wonder of the marine world! The 2017 survey begins in the Caribbean Sea around the stunning islands of the US and British Virgin Islands. We will continue our historical sampling grid from previous years, collecting water and plankton samples.We will also seek out information about the cross-shelf transport of water and planktonic organisms around these islands, and hopefully capture spawning events of commercially valuable reef fish. We are pleased to be sailing with collaborators from NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML), University of Miami (RSMAS), University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), City University of New York (CUNY), University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez (UPRM), University of South Florida (USF), and USVI Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR). 

Later, the Foster will make her triumphant return to the Gulf of Mexico, going on the hunt for recently spawned patches of larval bluefin tuna! We have many new and exciting sampling schemes planned for this portion of our survey that we look forward to sharing. 

From L-R: Scientists Sarah (UVI), Giovanni (UPRM), Jason (RSMAS), Kristen (UVI),
Jess (CUNY), & Tanya (CUNY) enjoy the view as we set sail from Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Once again, we'd like to offer a glimpse into what life on a research vessel is like, as well as introduce our incredible collaborators, veteran researchers, and up-and-coming young scientists. We hope you'll join us!

Check out posts from last year's cruise blog!