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ASK THE SCIENTISTS

Coral Connections in the Gulf

August 21-September 2, 2011
aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster


 

At the start of this expedition, we invited you to send us your questions for the scientists. Here are some of the questions we've received and their answers.

QUESTION TOPICS

Click on a question category below to jump directly to those responses or feel free to read down the entire list.

Mission:

  1. Why are you researching at East and West Flower Garden Banks?
  2. How will you use information gathered during this expedition to not only understand the ecology of the sanctuary, but also help protect other underwater habitats?
  3. Can the research conducted in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary be used to benefit coral reefs all around the world?
  4. What changes will take place after this mission is completed?
  5. Are there going to be similar studies like this in a different location, like the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean?
  6. How do you know where to look in such a big body of water?
  7. If the purpose is to gather data about the fish population on the coral reeds, would it also be important to gather data about every year to see what the effects of pollution and global warming does to the population of fish?
  8. Does your research only pertain to fish and coral reefs?
  9. Next time you take a trip like this, would you ever consider taking a group of high school students so that they can get a hands-on, up-close and personal, real-life experience of what they are learning in class?

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Wildlife:

  1. What kinds of marine life do you see 110-150 feet below?
  2. What type of fish are you looking for?
  3. What is the dominate predator fish on the salt domes?
  4. Does part of your research involve discovering any new species, or proof of a more rare species' existence?
  5. What is so special about a marbled grouper that you want to see it so bad?
  6. What sort of behavior do you look for in the wildlife as an indication of a problem with the sanctuary?
  7. How do the animals and coral in the Flower Garden Banks National Sanctuary compare to the animals found in the 13 other Marine Sanctuaries?
  8. What is it about the geography of the area that makes this a particularly good place for coral to thrive and a good home for a variety of marine life?
  9. At what depth in the ocean is it ideal for coral to survive?
  10. What  is the most beautiful place to study fish and their habitats?
  11. How do fish know when to spawn each year?
  12. How many fishes does your team usually see on a daily basis and how many different kinds?

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Equipment:

  1. What types of equipment will be used during this expedition?
  2. Is any of the equipment hazardous to the environment or is this a rather green venture?
  3. What are the depth capabilities of the sonar mapping technology you are using?
  4. Why spend all that time calibrating the Ek60 single-beam sonar if you can use the default setting?
  5. What  kinds of things help scientists with the sonar?

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Logistics:

  1. What's the significance of researching for 14 days?
  2. How did you prepare for this expedition?
  3. Where does the funding for this expedition come from? Do you you accept outside donations?
  4. Approximately how many boats do you send out to the sanctuary each year?
  5. Since this expedition is a part of a 3-year effort, what were some of the other expeditions included in this and what are some of the future expeditions?
  6. What other expeditions does NOAA organize and participate in? Are the expeditions set out for the same reasons that the Nancy Foster was set out for?
  7. How many researchers go along on a boat trip?
  8. Is there a certain time of the day you will be searching and collecting the data?
  9. How did you get involved with the group and did you know anyone previous to the expedition?
  10. How do you survive on this mission, like your food supply and beds and restrooms?
  11. What do you do if there is bad weather? Do you temporarily stop the exploration?
  12. What are the perks and negatives of being on a boat with the same people for a period of time?
  13. Is there a best time period to do the research, say a season, to observe the coral reefs and fish population?

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Careers:

  1. What are some of the qualifications the members of your expedition team need to have?
  2. What exactly do you do?
  3. What is it like to work at a job like this every day?
  4. How does your job make a positive impact?
  5. How did you become interested in marine biology?
  6. Have any of the questions my fellow classmates submitted raised any new questions/concerns/ideas among the biologists?
  7. How much education does it take to become a marine biologist/scientist?

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Research:

  1. How do you get down to the right level? Do you scuba? Or take a submarine/boat?
  2. What happens if there is an incident at the bottom?  How will the people on the ship know?
  3. Are there different ways to explore deeper water, for example up to 300 feet, compared to the 110-150 feet depths that are being explored in this expedition?
  4. Which data collection method is most reliable?

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Sanctuary:

  1. About how many known reefs are there in the world?
  2. Compared to similar systems around the world, how large is Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary?
  3. Are there any other immediate benefits of protecting the sanctuary other than that of protecting plants and species?
  4. How big of a negative impact on the sanctuary has man already made?
  5. Has the BP oil spill hurt the Flower Gardens?  Is the number of fish at the Flower Gardens increasing due to damage to other areas of the Gulf from the oil spill?
  6. Is it true that the coral reefs are slowly and gradually dying off?
  7. What would be the potential effects if this Sanctuary was destroyed (i.e. through pollution)?

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MISSION QUESTIONS

Q: Why are you researching at East and West Flower Garden Banks? (Vanessa—Pearland, TX; Gina--Pearland, TX)

A: This project is attempting to characterize fish populations throughout the sanctuary.  Typically researchers do research on the coral caps because it is shallow and easier to work there.  Unfortunately the coral caps comprise about 1% of the sanctuary.  We are collecting information throughout the whole sanctuary to understand how many and what kind of fish are there now so the sanctuary managers can use this information to make decisions. (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

A: We picked these sites because the types of data that we are processing has either never been collected here or is crucial to understand the dynamics of these ecosystems over time. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

Two scuba divers swimming above a reef.
Scuba divers in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: FGBNMS/Schmahl

Q: How will you use information gathered during this expedition to not only understand the ecology of the sanctuary, but also help protect other underwater habitats? (Laura—Pearland, TX; Owais--Pearland, TX)

A: This information is crucial to understanding what a healthy coral reef ecosystem should look like. Out here there is minimal human impact, and the reefs have incredible biodiversity. The Flower Garden Banks are great for science because they serve as a models for other reefs, like those in the Caribbean, where corals are highly at risk from pollution and the marine life is heavily over-fished.  (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

A: No two reefs are the same, however, understanding the basic function of reefs can certainly be compared among reefs from all over the world.  For the most part, coral reefs have communities that are similar in their composition, such as fishes that are carnivores (meat eaters) and herbivores (plant eaters) and a variety of invertebrate organisms (corals, shrimp, crabs etc.).  There is basic knowledge of how these communities interact, but there is still a lot to learn.  So, people that study reefs all over the world publish their work and other scientists can read this and see how it may or may not apply to the reefs they study. (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

To learn more about other research being conducted in the sanctuary, please visit our Research Projects page.

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Q: Can the research conducted in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary be used to benefit coral reefs all around the world? (Michael—Pearland, TX; Tyler--Pearland, TX)

A: Yes, the research here can certainly benefit reefs globally. Our work is studying the interactions between all facets of a reef ecosystem, and the sanctuary serves as a good model of nearly pristine coral reefs. Biologists and ecologists can compare the health of the corals, the abundance of fish, and the diversity of marine life. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

A: This project started as a response to a concern about the loss of fish populations and habitat damage in the sanctuary. We worked with a variety of other scientists to put together a plan to collect information throughout the whole sanctuary to develop a baseline of information for future research. The baseline is essentially a level of information that says, we think this is the status of fish populations and benthic communities at this time. With this information, the sanctuary can manage these populations to see if they change in time and if they do change, why? (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

Looking down at divers swimming on a deep reef.
Sanctuary reefs begin 55-60 feet underwater.
Photo: FGBNMS/Hickerson

Q:  What changes will take place after this mission is completed? (Jessica—Pearland, TX)

A: There won't be any changes after this mission, but there may be some after next year's data collections. We'll have to analyze all three years' data to see what steps need to be taken. (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

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Q: Are there going to be similar studies like this in a different location, like the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean? (Pearland, TX)

A: Yes. I work for NOAA's biogeography team and we do this type of work all over U.S. waters. I was on this same ship doing the same work back in March in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but my team works on reefs in Hawaii, the Samoas, Puerto Rico, and the Florida Keys, too. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

Q: How do you know where to look in such a big body of water? (Sean—Pearland, TX)

A: We don't know where to look exactly, that's why we have to explore. We have made preliminary maps using sonars and geographic information systems. Than we send divers down to record their observations of the marine life and the different habitats. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

Q: If the purpose is to gather data about the fish population on the coral reeds, would it also be important to gather data about every year to see happens? (Hung—Pearland, TX)

A: You're absolutely right. Collecting data over time by returning every year is crucial for sound science. To limit seasonal variables we try to go at the same time for consistency.  (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

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Q: Does your research only pertain to fish and coral reefs? (Hung—Pearland, TX)

A: Our research does not pertain just to fish and corals, but the entire ecosystem. We monitor the balance of the ecosystem by observing the interactions between the fish and the corals, recording water temperature and salinity, and classifying the different habitats with our sonar mapping. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

Q: Next time you take a trip like this, would you ever consider taking a group of high school students so that they can get a hands-on, up-close and personal, real-life experience of what they are learning in class? (Gabriella--Houston, TX)

A: It takes a lot of resources to take a regular boat trip out there for more than two days, but imagine how much it takes to stay out two weeks! The problem with taking a group of high school kids to the Flower Garden Banks with a crew and group of scientists is that the ship couldn't support enough food, supplies, and space. The ship is only made for a maximum of 38 people, and we had a full crew and science party of 35. So although it would be great to take students out there and show them, we would need a bigger boat! Also if you really want the up-close and personal hands-on experience down there, you have to scuba dive.

If you are really interested in taking a trip to the Flower Garden Banks, then you should study marine sciences with one of the partnering universities, like Texas A&M in Galveston, who send undergraduates students who have research projects for credit. That way you wouldn't have just a field trip, but you would actually work with the scientists for a class and start your career in such an amazing field. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

WILDLIFE QUESTIONS

Q: What kinds of marine life do you see 110-150 feet below? (Emma—Pearland, TX)

A: Most of the corals that we are studying are about 110-150 feet deep, so we are seeing a lot of reef creatures that you would see much shallower in the Caribbean. Our dive team has seen a lot of groupers (tigers, coney, yellow edge, red hind), snappers (grey, dog), parrotfish (red band, princess, stoplight), and tons of damselfish, wrasses, and blennies.

Coney, a type of grouper
A coney in the sanctuary. Photo: FGBNMS/Schmahl

I would say the most common fish we see are the <3cm sunshine fish that hang out in little schools above the broad plate corals. They are yellow on top and kind of dusky bottomed. Next I would say are the creolefish which have been seen in schools in the hundreds. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

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Creolefish schooling above a reef pinnacle.
Creolefish swarming above a pinnacle at Stetson Bank.
Photo: FGBNMS/Schmahl

For more information on what species inhabit the sanctuary, please visit our Species List page.

Q: What type of fish are you looking for? (Christina—Pearland, TX)

A: The objectives of this cruise are to look at the abundance and distribution of all fishes, not focus on any one particular fish. Well, I take that back. There is a specific fish that has been making the news lately. The lionfish. This fish is an invasive fish that is normally found in the Pacific Ocean.

A while back someone released a few from aquaria and they apparently love the southeast Atlantic, Caribbean and now the Gulf of Mexico. Their normal predators in the Pacific are not here so they are populating our reefs here at unprecedented rates! The lionfish has only recently made it to the Flower Garden Banks but in low numbers so far. In most places, when lionfish are found they are sacrificed and examined to learn more about their biology and genetics. (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

lionfish
A lionfish recently captured at Sonnier Bank, near the sanctuary. Photo: FGBNMS

For an explanation of invasive species and a history of the lionfish invasion, please visit our Invasive Species page.

Q: What is the dominate predator fish on the salt domes? (Carl—Pearland, TX)

A: The dominant predators are probably the black and tiger groupers. They are just huge here, and very abundant. Seasonally huge schools of hammerheads show up, and there are a few residents as well.  (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

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Q: Does part of your research involve discovering any new species, or proof of a more rare species' existence? (James—Pearland, TX)

A: Yes, the discovery of a new species to these reefs is of tremendous importance to understanding the reef ecosystems at the Flower Garden Banks sanctuary. Documenting rare species like mantas and marbled grouper provides invaluable data as well. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

Marbled grouper hovering above the reef
This marbled grouper was spotted during expedition activities. Photo: NOAA/Buckel

Q: What is so special about a marbled grouper that you want to see it so bad? (Stephanie—Pearland, TX)

A: I was excited to see a marbled grouper because they are a very rare fish to see while diving.  They occur from North Carolina to Brazil and inhabit coral reefs and rocky ledges to depths of 800 feet.  Flower Garden Banks NMS, is one of the few places you can dive in the US and see one.  As luck would have it, on my very first dive of the mission, I saw a 65cm marbled grouper!  Since my first dive, I've seen five other marbled grouper during the mission.  Even with my limited experience observing their behavior, I must say they are extremely curious and remind me of my Labrador retriever, Maple.  Just like my dog, the marbled grouper followed me around where ever I went! (Brian Degan)

Q: What sort of behavior do you look for in the wildlife as an indication of a problem with the sanctuary? (Jonathon—Pearland, TX)

A: One thing we can observe that might give us an idea that something is wrong is coral bleaching. Corals have colorful algae that live within their tissues. If stressful conditions arise, the coral will lose all the algae and and their color, allowing you to see through to their white skeletons beneath. This is not immediately harmful to the coral but if it lasts a long time, the colony could die or be susceptible to disease.

Stark white coral colony amid normal colored corals on a reef.
Bleached fire coral observed in the sanctuary in 2005.
Photo: Joyce & Frank Burek

Another thing we might look for is the presence of predators. For the most part barracudas, groupers and snappers are the dominant residents on the reefs, if their numbers were to decline we might think something was going on. (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

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Q: How do the animals and coral in the Flower Garden Banks National sanctuary compare to the animals found in the 13 other National Marine Sanctuaries? (Jacob—Pearland, TX)

A: This sanctuary is vastly different from all the other sanctuaries. The main difference is its location to shore. It sits about 115 miles offshore. It is also the only sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico, therefore the fish and invertebrates we see here are generally different than those elsewhere. There are many similar species seen in the Florida Keys sanctuary, but that reef system is close to land. The main point of creating these sanctuaries was their uniqueness. They are all very special places! (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

Map showing sites of all 14 National Marine Sanctuaruy locations of all 14 sites in the National Marine Sanctuary System

There are 14 sites in the National Marine Sanctuary System.

Q: What is it about the geography of the area that makes this a particularly good place for coral to thrive and a good home for a variety of marine life? (Owais—Pearland, TX)

A: The Flower Garden Banks are like an oasis in the desert.  The depth of the banks rise from about 300 feet deep to 60 feet.  Corals thrive in depths from 0-130 feet or so.  Plus the clear water and warm temperatures are large components that help corals thrive here.  The diversity of organisms that make up a reef also correlate with the diversity of other organisms such as fish, both fish that use the reef as refuge (to hide) and those that use the reef as a grocery store (food!!)  In most ecosystems, not just coral reefs, where you have a diverse assemblage of habitats there will usually be a diverse assemblage of organisms that use those habitats. (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

For more information about the geography of the Flower Garden Banks, please visit our Natural Setting page.

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Q: At what depth in the ocean is it ideal for coral to survive? (Aashini—Pearland, TX)

A: Photic corals (that use photosynthesis for energy) can survive in shallow tidal lagoons less than two feet and can be found as deep as 150 feet deep where the light is mostly filtered out. There are more and more discoveries of aphotic corals, that do not rely on sunlight at all, that are being found miles deep underwater. They mainly feed by filtering out the bottom currents for any microscopic organisms that they can catch.

Deep reef habitat
Deep reef habitat found at depths of about 300 feet in the sanctuary. The white and yellow organisms are corals, and the red organism in the center is a crinoid.
Photo: NURC/UNCW/FGBNMS

The reef-building corals at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary have been thriving for hundreds of years based on some geological core sampling, but very little is known. There are different time periods of growth and death from the changes in sea level and the chemical changes of the water from global warming. With the current trends of sea level rise, warming ocean temperatures, and increasing acidification of the water, it is still a mystery as to how coral reefs will survive. This summer the water temperature has been as high as 86 F which is dangerous for corals and makes them more susceptible to bleaching, which we have seen but is not as common as we predicted. So we think they are doing very well. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

Q: What  is the most beautiful place to study fish and their habitats? (Anthony—Pearland, TX)

A: I think I can speak for all of this science crew....FLOWER GARDEN BANKS!!! (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

Q: How do fish know when to spawn each year? (Martha—Pearland, TX)

A: We don't really know exactly why they choose certain times to spawn. The fish instinctively know when to spawn together from millions of years of evolution and it is different for every species. They spawn in mass to raise the chances of fertilizing the eggs and also to mix up their genes that they pass on to their young. We believe they follow certain phases of the moon at certain times of the year because of a combination of factors, like tides and water temperature. These factors are unique to individual reefs all over the world.  We do know what kind of structures to look for and what time of year for many species, but there are still many mysteries about the sex lives of fish. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

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Q: How many fishes does your team usually see on a daily basis and how many different kinds? (Sofia—Pearland, TX)

A: We see many different kinds of fish but it really depends on their habitat. Our divers try to collect data at different habitats to study the species diversity from place to place. There are over 200 different species of fish at Flower Garden Banks but it really depends on the diving conditions and how much time is spent on each dive to see every species for each habitat. One diver may report 20 species from swimming over a reef, but another diver may see twice as much by staying still in one area and letting the fish come out of their hiding spots. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

EQUIPMENT QUESTIONS

Q: What types of equipment will be used during this expedition? (Phi—Pearland, TX; Vanessa—Pearland, TX; Whitney—Pearland, TX)

A: Equipment will vary depending on what type of research is being conducted.  On this cruise, we have lots of scuba equipment, cameras, and computers. Lots of computers! We also have lots of underwater paper.  Why underwater paper?  That’s what we record our data on! (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

A: We are using a suite of accoustic sensors, or sonars to map the sea floor in 3D and also estimate fish populations and locate where they aggregate. We have a 200 kHz Reson 7125 multi-beam sonar, 38, 120, and 200 kHz Ek60 single-beam, and a 400 kHz Me70 split-beam sonar. We also have a CTD device that measures sea water conductivity, temperature, and density; tons of scuba gear; a hyperbaric chamber in case a diver has an emergency and needs to decompress their blood stream so they don't get the bends; three small boats that take divers and other scientists to their study sites; and, an arsenal of underwater video cameras to study the habitats. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

People standing alongside a large, organge tube. One person holding a cover for one end of the tube.
Researchers on a 2009 trip do a practice run with the hyperbaric chamber on board the R/V MANTA.
Photo: FGBNMS

For more information on the types of equipment used in research efforts throughout the year, please visit our Tools and Technology page.

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Q: Is any of the equipment hazardous to the environment or is this a rather green venture? (Ken—Pearland, TX)

A: The cool part about our data collection methods is that we don't negatively impact the habitats or populations. We are not killing anything, just observing and counting. (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

Q: What are the depth capabilities of the sonar mapping technology you are using? (Zachary—Pearland, TX)

A: Our sonars have adjustable frequencies that allow us to make accurate maps at different depth ranges. The higher the frequency, the more sound waves per second, the less range for the waves to travel. The 400 kHz is the highest frequency which we use for about 200 feet max depth. The lower the frequency, the fewer soundwaves per second, the deeper the sound will travel. I think the lowest frequency we have is 37 kHz which we are actually using right now on Elvers Bank, which is about 300 feet at the shallowest. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

Bathymetric map of East Flower Garden Banks with colors showing various depths
An example of the kind of seafloor map that can be created from multi-beam data. This shows East Flower Garden Bank. Image: FGBNMS

Q:  Why spend all that time calibrating the Ek60 single-beam sonar if you can use the default setting? (Austin—Pearland, TX)

A: The reason we calibrate the Ek60 is to improve the accuracy of the sonar imagery. The default settings were misrepresenting fish sizes and populations. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

Q: What  kinds of things help scientists with the sonar? (Olivia—Pearland, TX)

A: Hydrographers have to analyze how sound travels through the water using a CTD (conductivity, temperature, and depth) device. That is because soundwaves can bend when they travel through the water from the sonar. This is called refraction. As you get deeper, the water temperature fluctuates from lack of sunlight or influx of different water types from currents, changing the salt content and density. Even a light rain shower can throw off a sonar. We take CTD measurements every four hours to make sure our maps will be accurate. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

Q: How old is the Nancy Foster? (John—Pearland, TX)

A: The Nancy Foster is a 21 year old research vessel. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

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LOGISTICS QUESTIONS

Q: What's the significance of researching for 14 days? (Anthony—Pearland, TX)

A: There is nothing magical about 14 days! That's just the amount of time we were allocated for the ship, which is typical for a lot of cruises. So, we try to gather as much information as possible during those 14 days. (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

Q: How did you prepare for this expedition? (Whitney—Pearland, TX)

A: We prepared by drawing out the plans for the dives and the mapping surveys on a geographic information system (GIS) weeks ahead of the cruise. We also had to make sure we had all of the software, virtual memory storage, and dive gear ahead of time. I was preparing myself mentally for this trip for about a month which made me a little anxious, but since we got out here it has been really smooth sailing. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

A: It takes a ton of planning and preparation to pull off this two week cruise. There's a lot of paperwork, shipping gear to the ship, planning around the ship's schedule because sometimes it changes. We have to provide the ship very detailed information about our scuba plans. How we are going to do it, who is going to do it, where, when. What do we do if we have an emergency? The same goes for the mapping and drop camera work. The ship needs to know our every need so they can help us accomplish our mission safely and keep us comfortable while we are not working. It is hard tedious work, but it is extremely fun and satisfying to see it come together and collect good data. (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

A researcher about to lower a drop camera setup over the side of a small boat.
Matt Rittinghouse getting ready to lower a drop camera setup over the side of a launch. Photo: NCCOS/Ebert

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Q: Where does the funding for this expedition come from? Do you accept outside donations? (Tyler—Pearland, TX)

A: The plan we put together requires a lot of money and time. NOAA has an office that provides money specifically for coral reef ecosystem research. This office is called the Coral Reef Conservation Program. The process is a very competitive procedure. It is not as easy as telling them, "Here's our plan and thanks for the money." We competed with lots of other groups trying to do research in other parts of the United States. We felt we had a strong plan and the Coral Reef Conservation Program thought so too! We are fortunate to have their funding! (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

A: Donations for any of our National Marine Sanctuaries can be made through the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, a non-profit organization set up specifically to support our sanctuary programs. (Kelly Drinnen, Sanctuary Staff)

Q: Approximately how many boats do you send out to the sanctuary each year? (Izabella—Pearland, TX)

A: Each year we travel to the sanctuary for research, maintenance, and observations as often as necessary.  Most of the trips take place on our own research vessel, the R/V MANTA, but some researchers use other boats like the M/V FLING or the M/V SPREE, commercial vessels that offer recreational dive trips as well.  Occasionally we are able to schedule time on a larger NOAA vessel like the NANCY FOSTER, but that is usually only once or twice a year, at best.  Trips on the MANTA take place almost every week during the summer months, when we have the best weather conditions, and at least quarterly the rest of the year. (Kelly Drinnen, Sanctuary Staff)

NOAA ship Nancy Foster on a smooth sea in the Gulf of Mexico
NOAA Ship Nancy Foster enjoying calm seas in the sanctuary August 29, 2011. Photo: FGBNMS/Embesi

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Q: Since this expedition is a part of a 3-year effort, what were some of the other expeditions included in this and what are some of the future expeditions? (Lauren—Pearland, TX)

A: Beginning in 2010 we planned to collect data on 3 cruises each year. One cruise focuses on the shallow coral caps (less than 110 feet). One focuses on the deep coral cap (110-150 feet) and the last cruise is to survey the deep waters of the sanctuary (deeper than 150 feet). We will repeat this in 2011 and 2012. So this cruise was the final cruise of 2011. One more year to go! (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

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Q: What other expeditions does NOAA organize and participate in? Are the expeditions set out for the same reasons that the Nancy Foster was set out for? (Samantha—Pearland, TX)

A: NOAA has expeditions all over the world. Visit NOAA's webpage (http://www.noaa.gov). You will see that NOAA does a lot of different things and has ships and other vessels that are designed to do particular things. Most of the ships can do a variety of things and not just one specific thing. It is good that they can be versatile. (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

Q: How many researchers go along on a boat trip? (Izabella—Pearland, TX; Whitney—Pearland, TX)

A: On the R/V MANTA, we can take a total of 14 people at a time, 4 of which are crew.  That means we only have space for 10 researchers at a time.  On a larger vessel like the NANCY FOSTER, there are over 40 people.  This trip has 13 scientists and 33 crew on board.  The crew drive the ship, keep the engines running, operate gear on the decks, cook the food, and plan the daily operations. On the recreational dive boats, they have spots for 24-30 divers, plus crew. (Kelly Drinnen, Sanctuary Staff)

R/V MANTA viewed from water level by a diver.
R/V Manta in the sanctuary. Photo: FGBNMS/Eckert

Q: Is there a certain time of the day you will be searching and collecting the data? (Vanessa—Pearland, TX)

A: Dive operations are performed at 8-11:30 a.m. followed by a break for lunch, then they go back out 1-4:30 p.m. I work the night shift in the lab processing the sonar data from about 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. It’s been a lot of long and quiet nights! My sleep schedule is going to be so messed up when I get back to shore, haha. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

A: We are collecting data 24 hours a day.  We are conducting visual surveys using scuba during the day, and using side scan sonar at night to map the bottom of the sanctuary and to get estimates of fish abundance. (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

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Q: How did you get involved with the group and did you know anyone previous to the expedition? (Emma—Pearland, TX)

A: I was recruited by the chief scientist, Randy Clark, who I work with in the NOAA Biogeography Branch. He needed a mapper that can process backscatter data.  This is a type of sonar imagery that records the intensity of the sound returns from the sonar pings, which can be used to delimit different structural boundaries and classify the habitat types. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

Q: How do you survive on this mission, like your food supply and beds and restrooms? (Rebecca—Pearland, TX)

A: We pack enough food for the two week missions, and we eat pretty well. Everyone has their own bunks and we all share showers and toilets (called the heads). The number one rule on the ship is to not anger the cooks. Angry cooks = bad food = unhappy scientists = bad science.  (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

Q: What do you do if there is bad weather? Do you temporarily stop the exploration? (Whitney—Pearland, TX)

A: So far the seas have been really smooth, except for strong currents today. If the seas get rough, then the field operations officer will make the call to cancel diver operations.  If the ship is rocking and rolling too hard, then we can't map because our data will look really bad. If a tropical storm blows up, then we have to go back to Galveston to hide. Fortunately everything has been great, and there wasn't a single cloud in the sky today. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

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Storm clouds over the ocean
Storm clouds seen from the Nancy Foster on a previous expedition. Photo: Nancy Foster website

Q: What are the perks and negatives of being on a boat with the same people for a period of time? (Christina—Pearland, TX)

A: This is a very important question. Crew chemistry is a very important aspect to a successful cruise. A lot of times people meet for the first time on a cruise. This is especially true for the ships crew. If there are personality problems that can make for a very long cruise. But when you get a great group of people together like we have on this cruise, it is nothing but fun every day.

Long cruises can be hard, especially when the weather cancels operations and you have a lot of time on your hands. But that's a good time to catch up on sleep, reading or movies. The scientists think they have it rough by being at sea for 2 weeks away from their families. But, the ship's crew can be at sea for months without seeing their families. (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

Q: Is there a best time period to do the research, say a season, to observe the coral reefs and fish population? (Chien—Pearland, TX)

A: Seasonality is sometimes a factor in planning a cruise.  We didn't have the option of deciding when we got this shiptime, so we planned accordingly.  However, summer is usally the best time to come offshore.  There is always the chance of a hurricane, but there's also the chance of flat seas. (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

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CAREER QUESTIONS

Q: What are some of the qualifications the members of your expedition team need to have? (Jonathon—Pearland, TX)

A: Scuba divers have LOTS of training. Training on the gear, training for certain depths, medical training etc. There is a lot of training to get started and regular training to keep everyone fresh, especially for those that don't dive very often. The ships crew has lots of training as well. Small boat operation, medical training, navigation. The team that is doing the sonar data collection also go through a lot of training. Mainly from the software side, its pretty complicated so they need to stay on top of how to use the software and be aware of changes. (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

Q: What exactly do you do? (Emma—Pearland, TX)

A: I am a sea floor mapper. I collect multi-beam data from the ship's high tech sonar system and then process the data to get high quality 3-D imagery of coral reefs and other features of the bottom. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

Graphic image of a ship using sonar to map the seafloor.
A ship using sonar to collect data about the seafloor.
Image: NOAA Ocean Explorer

To learn more about the other scientists on board, be sure to visit our Meet the Scientists page.

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Q: What is it like to work at a job like this every day? (Phi—Pearland, TX)

A: Unfortunately we don't do research cruises every day.  Most of us spend a large portion of our time at desks, behind computers, either doing data analysis, writing reports or writing proposals for funding opportunities.  Some people get to spend more time in the field than others. I spend about 4-6 weeks actually in the water doing scuba-related work each year, but I love all aspects of my job! (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

Q: How does your job make a positive impact? (Lauren—Pearland, TX)

A: Sometimes the research that we conduct helps create protected areas. This helps preserve sensitive habitats or endangered species. I feel great when this happens, but I also feel good about all the projects I work on as they are all intended to help protect the environment, especially marine habitats. (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

Q: How did you become interested in marine biology? (Emma—Pearland, TX; Kelsey--Pearland, TX)

Will SautterA: I became interested in marine biology when I was about ten years old. I grew up in Charleston, SC which is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. I loved to fish with my dad and grandpa, and go out on the boat with the whole family. Actually my mom is a marine geologist, so I guess it kind of runs in the family.

I chose this profession because I have grown up around the ocean all of my life. I have always been curious about places where very few people have ever gone, like the oceans and outer space. But truthfully, it is way too expensive to go to outer space. In fact, more people have actually gone there than the areas that we are mapping! It is the eagerness to see something that nobody has ever seen before that made me want to go on this trip and be an oceanographer.(Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

Q: Have any of the questions my fellow classmates submitted raised any new questions/concerns/ideas among the biologists? (Tyler—Pearland, TX)

A: I think one of the best things I get from exercises like this is trying to make our research goals, objectives and data understandable to people who are not scientists. That is a very hard job. Transferring this information is very helpful as environmental awareness is a very important part of conservation.

The more people are aware of science projects, their results, and how they can contribute, no matter how small they think it is, is extremely helpful. The questions you and your classmates have sent keep that perspective in my mind and keep me aware that I need to do my part to make sure you understand what we're doing and why it is important. (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

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Q: How much education does it take to become a marine biologist/scientist? (Owais—Pearland, TX)

A: Education is related to what you want to do with your career.  In order to be a professor at a university where you would teach and do research, you would need a PhD.  This could take up to 10-12 years.  My job doesn't require a PhD, but most marine biology jobs these days require a basic understanding of marine biology (a bachelors degree) plus a more in depth knowledge or study in a particular field (such as coral reef fish biology).  A person can certainly get a job with a bachelors degree, but there is a lot of competition! (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

RESEARCH QUESTIONS

Q: How do you get down to the right level? Do you scuba? Or take a submarine/boat? (Emma—Pearland, TX)

A: The scuba team is highly trained to conduct scientific surveys deeper than open-water divers are ever allowed to dive. They are limited by their air supply and can only go as deep as 150 feet, although if they had a special mixture of air called Nitrox, they could go about 80 feet deeper. It would be cool if we had a sub though, I have always wanted to go down in one! (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

A scuba diver getting ready to jump in the water.
A diver ready to jump into the sanctuary. Photo: NCCOS

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Q: What happens if there is an incident at the bottom?  How will the people on the ship know? (Phi—Pearland, TX; Ken--Pearland, TX)

A: Doing field work is always dangerous. We are jumping off ships 100 miles from shore in waters that can be 300 feet deep. There are lots of critters that bite and sting and there are lots of dangers on a fully functional ship. We are as careful as we can be and do many drills to keep our safety skills in the front of our minds. Accidents happen and we deal with them the best we can. Serious accidents will shut down ship operations and end research projects, so we try to be as observant as possible.

We take as many precautions as we can to be safe.  If an accident happens on the bottom, we generally try to get to the surface as quickly, but as safely, as possible.  Depending on the amount of people that are in a group, one or two people may go ahead to the surface to get the medical process started.  But generally, we would want the injured person to get to the surface as soon as possible.  Thankfully, I have not experienced any serious issues like that since I've been working for NOAA. (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

Two divers carrying extra air and other equipment to help the technical divers.
Safety divers provide support to the technical divers during scuba operations. Photo: CIOERT/Winfield

A: If there is an incident on the bottom, there is a team of safety divers that hover above them in case of such a situation. They keep an eye on the divers and will come up to let the rescue boats know where they are. As I mentioned before, we have a portable hyperbaric chamber. This is used when a diver comes to the surface too fast and nitrogen bubbles form in the blood stream. This is the bends: very painful on the joints, very dis-orienting, and can cause serious brain damage or death. The chamber repressurizes the body as if a diver was back underwater to a depth level where the nitrogen is suppressed and the body can function normally. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

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Q: Are there different ways to explore deeper water, for example up to 300 feet, compared to the 110-150 feet depths that are being explored in this expedition? (Lauren—Pearland, TX)

A: We can cover a lot more area in the deeper parts of the sanctuary using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). An ROV is a submarine-like instrument that we can control from a ship, kind of like a video game. The ROV has lots of cameras so we can see what is going on. The scientists will sit around a bunch of monitors and write down what they see! (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

Several  men launching an ROV from the back deck of a boat
Launching an ROV from the back deck of the R/V Manta. Photo: FGBNMS/Schmahl

Q:  Which data collection method is most reliable? (Thomas—Pearland, TX)

A: The observations from the scientific divers are the most reliable source of data because they actually get to go down to see the habitats themselves and can count for the species diversity of fish, whereas the fisheries acoustics and multibeam sonar are sensors all have a degree of uncertaintity associated with them because they are remotely sensed. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

SANCTUARY QUESTIONS

Q: About how many known reefs are there in the world? (Michael—Pearland, TX)

A: There are millions of reefs across the globe. A reef is any kind of living marine structure. In the Great Barrier Reef alone there are over 3,000 individual reefs. There are perhaps thousands of coral reefs that are undiscovered in the deep ocean where there is no light. These corals do not rely on photosynthesis for food, but rather capture plankton and nutrients that flow with the currents. Check out NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program website at http://coralreef.noaa.gov/ to learn more about coral distribution, deep water corals, and find maps of corals around the world.  (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

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Q: Compared to similar systems around the world, how large is Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary? (Owais—Pearland, TX)

A: The Sanctuary is about 42 square nautical miles in size, and consists of three banks (East, West and Stetson).  All of this area is not coral reef. A very small percentage of the sanctuary is coral reef.  So, it is much smaller in scale compared to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Florida Keys.  Its size and isolation from other reef systems add to its uniqueness! (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

Atlas map of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary
Atlas map of the sanctuary.

For more information on sanctuary size and features, please visit our FAQ page.

Q: Are there any other immediate benefits of protecting the sanctuary other than that of protecting plants and species? (Michael—Pearland, TX)

A: Yes, protecting these reefs has a lot of benefits for conducting scientific research in pristine ecosystems. Flower Garden Banks is such a unique environment biologically and geologically that it is extremely valuable to study how the marine life thrives here. Our goal is to understand the different habitats of the Flower Garden Banks sanctuary to understand these species' interactions with their surrounding environment. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

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Q: How big of a negative impact on the sanctuary has man already made? (Michael—Pearland, TX)

A: The negative human impact on these reefs is very minimal. Flower Garden Banks is so far away from any port and is so isolated that there is not much boating traffic. There are a few sites where the sanctuaries people have placed mooring lines that boats can tie up to so they don't drop anchors on the corals, only hook and line fishing is allowed, and the sanctuaries are protected from oil drilling. The National Marine Sanctuaries goal is to make sure the visitors practice sustainable boating, touring, and research that promise a harmony of man and sea life that we are trying to protect. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

For more information on taking care of the sanctuary, please visit our Reef Etiquette page.

Q: Has the BP oil spill hurt the Flower Gardens?  Is the number of fish at the Flower Gardens increasing due to damage to other areas of the Gulf from the oil spill? (Gene)

A: To my knowledge the oil spill has had no physical impact here at the sanctuary.  One negative thing has happened, but not as it relates to the health or function of the sanctuary.  Last year we were supposed to be doing this very cruise in the sanctuary and the oil spill response included all NOAA vessels, so our cruise was cancelled.  The impact is financial, we obtained money to do the research, spent a lot of time planning for it, and then it was cancelled.  So that is the only negative thing I know of regarding the BP oil spill.  I'm glad we are out here this year, and we have funding to do it one more time next summer. 

It is really hard to estimate what impact the oil spill had on fisheries.  I do know that where I live, southern Louisiana, there was an initial positive outcome. A lot of areas were closed to fishing for almost 9 months.  When these areas were opened, there were LOTS of fish to be had.  Interesting, a small scale temporal closure results in a lot of fish to catch.  The big question is, “What are the impacts to all the fish eggs and larvae that were in the water during the spill?”  The timing could not have been worse.  A lot of fish and invertebrates spawn during that time.  Only time will tell if there is an impact to succeeding years of fish or invertebrate populations.  (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

For more information on how the Gulf oil spill impacted National Marine Sanctuaries, please visit our Oil Spill Resources page.

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Q: Is it true that the coral reefs are slowly and gradually dying off? And if so, how come? (Hung—Pearland, TX)

A: Coral reefs are increasingly at risk from global warming and climate change, as well as the threat of environmental disasters and increased human pollution as resources become more and more scarce and the population grows. The reefs are extremely sensitive to the changes in the water chemistry from increasing greenhouse gasses and water temperatures from global warming. We are taking biological samples to analyze any contaminants and collecting high resolution mapping data to see how the physical bottom will change. The affect of climate change and pollution can also cause coral bleaching as the polyps die from these changes to their environment. (Will Sautter, Hydrographer)

Q: What would be the potential effects if this Sanctuary was destroyed (i.e. through pollution)? (Owais—Pearland, TX)

A: That’s a good question and one that I hope doesn't happen.  The full impacts would potentially never be fully understood.  But at a minimum, we would not have a cool place to go diving.  That might impact jobs.  People would stop fishing here.  People can fish with hook and line in the sanctuary and many people do.  It’s hard to put a value on the enjoyment people get from fishing, but that would be a big impact.  From a biological standpoint, it would be hard to say what the impacts would be.  For one, the sanctuary is one of the most pristine reef ecosystems in the United States and perhaps the world.  Other reefs in the world used to look like this, but do not now for one reason or another.  It would truly be a shame to lose this unique area.

A boat full of fishers in the sanctuary
Fishers at Stetson Bank. Photo: FGBNMS/Drinnen

Thanks so much for your questions and I hope that you've learned something cool.  One thing I would like to leave you with is to remember that things that people do on land have impacts to the ocean.  Please recycle, don't dump chemicals or trash in the water, use reusable bags at the grocery store, and keep our waters clean.  The ocean is not infinite, let’s keep it healthy! (Randy Clark, Chief Scientist)

For more information on the impact of plastic bags on the ocean, check out our Plastics, Plastics Everywhere! (pdf) activity.

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Mission Information

See where the Nancy Foster is right now using NOAA's Ship Tracker website.

For a general overview of this expedition, please visit the Nancy Foster Cruise 2011 page.

To learn more about the scientists on this expedition, please visit the Meet the Scientists page.

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weather report observations cool stuff get wet


Orange, branching gorgonian (soft coral) anchored in a bed of sponges and other sea life.
   
National Marine Sanctuary logo - a stylized whale tail above waves