NOAA Ship Nancy Foster: Sieving, Sharks, and Science

A modified version of this blog post will be published to the NCCOS (National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science) page. Check it out here:

421 NOAA Ship Nancy Foster.

Now in the third week of my summer internship, I’m reflecting on my second week as an intern with the Charleston, SC NOAA lab aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster. From June 6 through June 13, I spent time sailing the ocean blue and conducting a routine marine community analysis of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). Below is a technical account of my experiences, interspersed with personal tales.

This was a routine cruise for the lab’s seaworthy veterans, but a first for me, a landlubber. As a member of the science crew, we boarded the ship on June 6 shortly after arriving in Key West, Florida. The Nancy Foster is approximately 187 feet long, and carried a crew of 20 plus 10 scientists. Aboard the ship, the crew and I were tasked with navigating and sampling the sanctuary through unusually calm and beautiful atmospheric and oceanic conditions (we did have a red sunset the evening before: ‘Red sky at night, sailor’s delight’). Around the clock scientific operations commenced an hour after leaving the dock in Key West, signaling that it was time for the hard hats and the work vests. Admiration of the beautiful sights was over, and it was time to switch into serious scientist mode for my twelve hour watch. Each day was split into two, twelve hour watch periods, and I was lucky to be assigned to the day watch with Noon to Midnight operations. While on watch, I had to be ready for any and all upcoming stations.


Retrieving the Young grab with scientist Blaine (on right) and myself (on left).

Erika_grab Erika Sieving

Launching the Young grab.  (left)

Sieving a full sample from the grab. (right)

The goal of the cruise was to survey thirty pre-selected random stations, between 30 and 300 feet in depth, within the sanctuary to acquire a generalized reading of the health of the sanctuary communities. Additionally, the cruise also set out to gather more bathymetry data by means of multi-beam echo sounder (MBES), a type of SONAR, technology to fill in some of the data gaps regarding the habitat dispersal throughout the sanctuary. Approximately two hours was spent at each station, performing the following operations. Each station was measured with a thorough set of parameters, including water quality, benthic infauna composition, and presence of contaminants in sediment. These tasks were accomplished via the launching of a CTD (conductivity, temperature and depth), a Young Modified Van Veen Grab Sampler, and fishing rods. With the CTD, I collected water samples from the twelve Niskin bottles on the CTD rosette for microorganism and micro-plastic analysis. During some stations, I assisted in the deployment of the Young grab and the sieving of the sediment grabs to acquire the benthic invertebrate infauna samples. Once those tasks were completed in that order at each station, myself and others set out to fish for benthic associated fish species for later tissue analysis.


With the help of cable ties and some cordage, the GoPro and dive light were mounted on the Young Grab.


The Atlantic Sharpnose shark and I. It was thrown back as it was not a target species.

In addition to my roles at each station, I also coordinated my own project for the Beaufort, NC lab. Working closely with all members of the Charleston crew, I temporarily mounted a GoPro Hero 3+ to the Young grab to acquire video footage of the bottom habitats at all stations. This project directly connected with my work in Beaufort, where I am working closely with Chris Taylor, Don Field, and Jenny Vander Pluym to continue the development of a complete habitat composition map of the FKNMS. The map contains a lot of MBES and visual data for the shallow (20 ). Additionally, the deeper portions also lack much visual data, namely images and video that help in the confirmation of the GPS positions of those habitats. The first step in adding to the sanctuary habitat map is the collection of MBES data and the semi-automated processing of it to determine habitat composition. During all transits between stations, the Senior Survey Technicians were collecting MBES data, and I was filming via the GoPro at all stations. During analysis, a computer program initially characterizes the MBES data and sorts it into habitats based upon pre-determined characteristics, and scientists help confirm or correct the program’s assumptions via the images and videos- and that process of verifying the proposed habitat distribution model is called ‘ground-truthing’. This is where my footage taken from the GoPro is critical, because the program performs approximately at a 50% accuracy rate, leaving the other 50% of the interpretations incorrect.


A series of screengrabs taken from the GoPro as the Young grab descends to the bottom at one of the stations. The algae, member of chlorophyta, is Caulerpa prolifera.

A special thanks to Cindy Cooksey, Chief Scientist for the cruise, the Charleston Crew, Ruth Kelty, Chris Taylor, Don Field, Jenny Vander Pluym, and Erik Ebert at the Beaufort Lab for giving me this opportunity and contributing to its success.

All photo credits to Erika Koontz.


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