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For the most part, we’ve had pretty mild weather. Over the last few days, however, it’s been colder and windier, with wind chills near -30 degrees Celsius. We have ice on many of the porthole windows and ice sickles on the deck railings. When going outside, you have to watch for icy patches on the deck.

For those who have to work outside, it can be a little bit challenging, and special cold-weather clothing is required to work safely. You may have noticed the coats (and sometimes suits) that are worn during deck operations. They are very warm, and also serve as a flotation device should you fall in the water.

Here’s a picture of Randy and Dan in their coats during a snowy SeaHorse retrieval last week. Pay close attention to the top of the buoy.

Now take a look at the pictures of the same buoy below. We retrieved the SeaHorse Profiler Friday. The buoy, which is the only part on the surface of the water, was covered in ice caused by freezing spray. It didn’t have any effect on the measurements taken, but it was pretty cool to look at! 


People Profile: Diane Hutt

Diane is one of the Marine Science Technicians (MST) on board the ship. She immediately takes you in with her fun and quirky personality and cool socks.

Educational Background

Diane has bachelor’s degrees in both biology and art. She has a master’s degree in fine art with a concentration in studio art. She spent several years teaching art at the college level, and is a practicing artist. She works with oils and charcoal, trying to capture the feeling of awe that comes from experiencing the vastness and interconnectedness of nature. Here are a couple of examples of Diane’s artwork (Images Courtesy Diane Hutt).


Diane lives in Asheville, North Carolina, a picturesque city in the mountains. However, she’s only home for a few months out of the year. For 3-4 months each year, she works for Raytheon Polar Services as part of the science support staff for the ship.

As an MST, Diane is in charge of the chemicals used in the labs and chemical safety. This includes storage, usage, disposal and the paperwork that goes along with it. She also sets up and works on the instruments that belong to the program labs. Working with the instruments is always a challenge because of the motion of the ship. Microscopes, freezers, and other delicate instruments tend to like to sit still, so the constant motion requires that Diane and the other MST’s do maintenance on them frequently.

From June through August, Diane works on a commercial salmon seining boat in Alaska (there are some YouTube videos of commercial salmon seining that can give you an idea of what this type of work is like). Diane says that the fishing involves long hours and a lot of physical labor, but that it’s incredible to see that part of the world and to have up close encounters with wildlife. Here’s a picture of the Equinox, which is the boat Diane works on in Alaska (Photo Credit: Joshua Mitchell).

When she’s home, Diane works as an artist, remodels her house, and even waits tables at a local restaurant. Diane says that she loves the work she does because of the scenery, the weather, wildlife and the people. It’s astounding to realize how many options are out there that allow you to use your skills while going to amazing places.

Using STEM

Since the purpose of Diane’s job on board is to support the scientific research occurring here, she is constantly working to gain a better understanding of what the scientists are doing. This involves reading the grant proposal and having a lot of conversations with the scientists so that she can fulfill their needs. The grant proposal typically comes with a plan for the labs, but sometimes Diane makes suggestions for making the labs work more efficiently.

Engineering and Technology is also a big part of Diane’s job because she has to set up and maintain each of the program-owned instruments.

Diane uses mathematics when planning for waste streams. Chemicals can cause damage if not disposed of properly, so Diane has to calculate the percentage of waste streams, including conversions as well as the molarities of solutions. Here’s a picture of Diane disposing of chemicals.

Ultimately, Diane says that her work on board the ship comes down to communication skills. She has to be good at communicating with the scientists about their needs and with everyone else on board to make her time more enjoyable. In fact, Diane says that good communication skills are necessary in most jobs.

Diane’s Advice to Kids

Diane says that the best advice she can give to kids is to realize that there is more than one way to go about forming a career.  There are so many options out there. If you find that you aren’t in love with what you’re doing, be brave, and make a change. Diane always thought she would be doing one thing for the rest of her life. When she realized that it wasn’t going to work out that way, she was ready, and jumped at a new opportunity. Anything is possible, if you’re willing to try.


Peering at Plankton

The Video Plankton Recorder (VPR) is one of the pieces of scientific equipment we put into the water. It was invented by Cabell Davis at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Josh Eaton and Robb Hagg run the VPR on this cruise, and our Chief Scientist, Dennis McGillicuddy, works with the scientific data it collects along with his graduate student, Elise Olson.

As I’ve mentioned before, the VPR is like an underwater airplane. It works a lot like an airplane, complete with wings, and active control surfaces such as a rudder, elevator, and aileron (the yellow pieces in the drawing below). The active surfaces control the pitch and the roll of the VPR to create a stable platform for the delicate instruments that it carries. As it flies through the water, a strobe in the right (starboard) wing and a digital camera in the nose cone photograph a cubic centimeter of water located half way in between (labeled Imaged Volume in the drawing below). The VPR is essentially a towed microscope allowing us to peer into the small world of plankton (Image credit: Andrew Girard).

Deploying the VPR

Deploying the VPR is always fun to watch. It’s a large piece of equipment, and the ship has to be moving at 6 knots for the deployment, which makes for a bit of a show. It takes 6 people to deploy the VPR, and everyone has to work together to get it in safely. The positions required for deployment are the following:

·     Deck Boss – coordinates the actions of everyone for safe deployments and recoveries

·     Winch Operator – follows the direction of the deck boss to launch and recover the instrument

·     Wire Fair Leader -guides the tow cable onto the winch

·     Flight Controller – sends flight commands to the instrument

·     Tagline Handlers (2)- help control the instrument as it transitions from the deck to the air to the water

Here’s a video of a VPR deployment. Josh (the Deck Boss) was wearing the camera on his hard hat, so you’re getting a first person viewing of the deployment. When he turns backward, he’s communicating with Robb, who is the Winch Operator.

Seeing What the VPR Sees

The VPR can stay in the water for weeks at a time. On this trip, each tow has averaged 18 hours. During that time, the ship has to travel between 8 and 10 knots, which means that we can’t stop for CTD casts. It’s a running joke on the ship that when the VPR is in the water, everyone gets caught up on lab tests and sleep – except for the VPR group. They are constantly monitoring the VPR to ensure that it stays upright and that all of its components are working correctly.

As the VPR travels through the water, it takes 30 photographs per second. A computer then looks at each picture and determines if there is anything in focus in the frame. If there is, that object is saved as a Region Of Interest (ROI), along with the exact time and position it was observed. The ROIs, or pictures of plankton, can then be either sorted by hand or by a computer program that scientists can “train” to identify different kinds of plankton.  In some of our recent tows, the VPR has been collecting upward to 50,000 images per hour, so the computer-based sorting is definitely preferred!

The VPR also has a host of oceanographic sensors on board. The two primary instruments are a small CTD and a fluorometer. This information is collected and plotted in real time. With this real time information scientists are able to make detailed survey maps of both the physical properties of the water and the plankton, which then in turn allow them to sample the ocean adaptively, focusing their observations on “where the action is”.

All of this information is used to map out the distribution of phytoplankton relative to the physical properties of the water (temperature, salinity, and density). For example, here are some images of Phaeocystis colonies taken from a recent VPR survey an eddy, which is a swirling weather system in the ocean. You saw some microscope photographs of a Phaeocystis colony in the 1/19 post. Here’s what they look like when photographed by the VPR. The first picture is of a grouping of colonies located near the surface of the water.

This one is of an individual colony located further down the water column.

These are the types of plots that are produced from the data.

The plot above is a cross-section of density from a survey that started inside an eddy and finished just outside the eddy.  The up-and-down “tow-yos” (towed yo-yos) of the VPR are visible in the data, and the density is shaded in color, ranging from blue (low density) to red (high density).  These data show that the density is higher inside the eddy than outside it.

Now here’s the fun part: the plankton can be mapped in exactly the same way.  This plot shows that the individual Phaeocystis colonies are most abundant at about 50m depth, although they tend to reside a little deeper in the center of the eddy than they do outside of it.  Also, there is a patch of high abundance located at the edge of the eddy, as indicated by the red/yellow dots near the center of the plot.

These data give us important clues as to how Phaeocystis thrives in this environment.  Moreover, having this information at our fingertips allows us to sample these plankton patches with other instruments such as the CTD and Bongo nets. The VPR is yet another example of the exciting things that result when the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) work together!


People Profile: Josh Eaton

Josh is a mechanical engineer who works for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. He is part of a team of engineers that design, build, and run equipment to support science. This means that sometimes Josh works in an office and workshop at WHOI. Other times, like now, Josh goes on scientific cruises. On this cruise, Josh is responsible for running and maintaining the Video Plankton Recorder (VPR). Here’s a picture of Josh during a VPR deployment.

Josh has lived around the water all his life, and he says that he has always loved being near the water.  Mechanical engineers can work with any type of equipment. Some never travel, and others just do small trips. It really depends on what type of equipment they work with. Josh’s travel is driven by the VPR, and for him, being able to combine engineering with ocean travel is a dream come true.


The VPR is a sort of flying fish (I will discuss the VPR in more detail in a future post). You can see its wings and rudder in the picture above. Josh oversees all of its operations – he keeps it running, fixes any problems, and attempts to learn from each operation to try to make the VPR better for future use. This might include changing the location of equipment on the VPR or the type of wiring. Here’s a picture taken while Josh, Rob who is also part of the VPR team, and Dan, the lead MT, do some problem solving on the VPR.

Using STEM

Since the major goal of Josh’s job at WHOI is to support the science, he has to know a bit about the goals of the scientists and what kind of data they are trying to collect. This knowledge helps him when designing equipment.

Technology is an important part of Josh’s job because he continually integrates technology into his work in order to get science data. In fact, a lot of what Josh does as a mechanical engineer is to use and manipulate technology.

Math is a huge part of Josh’s job. Prior to this cruise, Josh had to do a lot of mathematical calculations to ensure that the strength of the winch, base, bolt, and deck were such that they would hold the VPR. In fact, Josh says that a lot of engineering is using math to analyze equipment and scenarios.

And beyond that, Josh is just fun to be around. You can always count on him to have something funny to say and to never take himself too seriously. Here’s a fabulous picture of Josh trying on the Immersion Suit during a drill.

Why Josh has the Coolest Job

When I asked Josh what was the most interesting/fun thing about his job, his face lit up. He replied that his job is incredibly fun because he gets to “make stuff and break stuff”! What?

Mechanical engineering works sort of like this: Josh starts with a 3-dimensional model on the computer. Since it’s computerized, he can manipulate the model and run simulations. When everything looks right, Josh has the machinist make the parts, and he fits them together. Then, he tests it. Even though he’s run simulations, there could still be problems, so testing is a very important step. Sometimes, Josh tests the equipment to destruction to ensure that it works like it’s supposed to.

Advice to Kids

Josh’s biggest advice to kids is to learn how to study. Even if you don’t need to study now, you will need to in the future (high school or college). If you can learn that skill now, you will be much better off when you actually need to use it. He also advises you to take care of yourself. You can’t travel very easily if you aren’t physically fit. Eating right and exercising will ensure that you are ready when a great opportunity comes your way, like going to Antarctica!


Phytoplankton Potential

Phytoplankton potential for growth is based on the amount and types of light and nutrients they are receiving. If they aren’t getting enough light and/or nutrients, then they can’t photosynthesize very well and they grow more slowly. Since phytoplankton are the beginning of the marine food web, their growth rate ultimately effects how much food is available to the other marine creatures, from zooplankton up to whales.

Phytoplankton Potential Testing

Tom Bibby and Tommy Ryan-Keogh, both from University of Southampton, UK are the biological oceanographers in charge of measuring the health of the phytoplankton. They do this using a Fast Repetition Rate Fluorometer (FRRf), which is a device that measures the phyotosynthetic efficiency of the phytoplankton. This gives them an idea of how well the phytoplankton are converting light into potential for growth.

They begin by collecting samples of water from different depths during the CTD Rosette dance. Here’s a picture of Tommy taking samples from a cast.

The phytoplankton cells are sun quenched due to our nonstop sunlight. Sun quenching is similar to how your eyes feel if you don’t have on sunglasses and you’ve been outside on a sunny day. You wouldn’t want to come inside and take an eye exam right away, right? To help abate the sun quenching, the water samples are collected in opaque bottles that allow in a limited amount of sunlight. The samples are then left for 45 minutes to give the cells a chance to recover from the sun quenching prior to testing.


Once the samples have recovered, they are tested in the FRRf. This involves shining a pulse of blue light on the phytoplankton every microsecond. The phytoplankton respond by fluorescing (glowing). The more nutrients are available, the more efficient phytoplankton are at using light energy. This in turn means that there will be more phytoplankton available for the food web. Phytoplankton with more potential (because they have more nutrients and light) give off less fluorescence. Here’s a picture of Tommy putting water samples into the FRRf.

The ultimate goal is to correlate the FRRf results with the iron concentrations. When iron levels are higher, we should see faster growing phytoplankton. Tom and Tommy will use this data, coupled with the amount of phytoplankton found, to give us an idea of how much food the ocean could produce at the plant level. So far, the results have been encouraging. In areas of high iron concentrations, the phytoplankton have been growing efficiently.

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