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Coral Connections in the Gulf

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

Mission Log
Thursday, September 1, 2011
Final Day

by Randy Clark
Chief Scientist

Hello all, this is Randy Clark and I had the privilege to serve as chief scientist on the research cruise.  The science crew is composed of some great people and they did a tremendous job with everything they were tasked to do. 

There’s a lot of preparation that goes into these cruises, both from the science side and the ship side.  Many months went into the planning and it was definitely worth it when the plans were executed as smoothly as they were.  The weather held up for us, too.  Typically I plan activities for every day that I’m at sea and know that I will lose at least one or two, sometimes more, to bad weather.  Not this time!! 

Our typical day put us in the water around 8 a.m., two dives and a bunch of drop camera stations in the morning and a break for lunch.  Back in the water at 1300 (that’s 1 p.m.), two more dives, more drop camera stations, and back for supper.  Acoustic work would start around 1700 (5 p.m.) and go all night.  You’d think doing this for 14 days would get old, but life on the sea is awesome, especially when you have such beauty to see under the water and good colleagues to hang out with.

NOAA ship on a calm sea
The science crew's home for the past 2 weeks.
Photo: FGBNMS/Embesi

We successfully conducted 36 scuba surveys and counted lots of fish.  We saw groupers, snappers, damselfish, parrotfish, eels, jacks, triggerfish, barracudas, just to name a few.  The sanctuary is a very fishy place!  It definitely seems like an oasis in the middle of a desert.

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The fish data we collected on the Nancy Foster is a part of our plan to collect fish data throughout the sanctuary.  We did scuba surveys earlier in August on the shallower part of the coral cap and used a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to collect data in the deep portion of the sanctuary during that trip.  The ROV is equipped with cameras that we use to see underwater and driven from a boat at the surface, kind of like a video game! 

Spotted moray eel swimming out from a crevice in the reef.Moray eel at East Flower Garden Bank. Photo: NCCOS/Buckel

The coral caps of the sanctuary are truly amazing.  The corals that live here are healthy, abundant, and beautiful.  They provide an amazing framework of habitat that supports the diverse fish population.  The amount and size of corals found here in the sanctuary do not compare to anything I’ve seen in the US Caribbean.  It is truly amazing!  Every time I’m on the bottom, I feel like I’m on some alien planet, the landscape is really amazing!

A section of reef at East Flower Garden Bank with a diver in the background.Coral community at East Flower Garden Bank. 
Photo: CIOERT/Winfield

Our fish acoustic work turned out successful as well.  The real story comes later as we have to process all the information to get the final data.  Overall we surveyed about 35.4 square kilometers, which is a lot of area!  The good thing about this technique is the ease of deployment.  We can cover a lot of area without getting in the water.  Both this technique and the scuba surveys are methods that don’t have negative impacts to the habitat or the organisms.

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Acoustic data display showing a large school of fish as cluster of blue marks above a red line that represents the bottom.Fish school hovering over the reef.  Photo: NCCOS/Ebert

We also had the opportunity to do some mapping on a bank outside the sanctuary.  Elvers Bank is located about 62 kilometers (35 nautical miles) southeast of East Flower Garden Bank. There are a lot of banks in the Gulf that are poorly studied.  By getting bathymetry (depth) and backscatter information we can get an idea of the habitats and we can use that information to plan future scuba or ROV cruises.    

Bathymetric map of Elvers Bank
Bathymetric map of Elvers Bank. Image: NCCOS

The drop camera operation turned out well, but gave us the most problems as we had difficulty with the camera and the currents messed with our positioning. 

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Last year we created a map of the habitats in the sanctuary.  We based our classification on acoustic information without ever seeing the habitat, but we had a good idea what was there.  In order to feel confident our mapped habitats are what we say they are, we drop a camera to take a look and make changes where necessary. 

We’ll compare the camera data to our map when we get back home and make the necessary adjustments.  The habitat map is the basis of how we develop our survey plans.  We want to survey where the fish are and they are normally on the reef structures so we want to know precisely where the reefs are.

I hope you enjoyed following us as we bounced around the sanctuary.  It has been a blast, a tiring blast, but fun.  I think I can speak for the entire science team that a day in the field is a million times better than a day in the office, especially when we are at the Flower Garden Banks!!

  Group photo of the members of the science team standing on the back deck of a ship.Nancy Foster FGBNMS Cruise Science Team!
Photo: NCCOS/Clark

Again, I want to thank the crew of the Nancy Foster. Without their awesome support this work would not be completed.  We thank each and every one of them. 

Thanks also to all the students at Dawson High.  We received so many good questions that it would take me two weeks to answer them all!  My advice to all of you is to study hard and always think that you can make a difference to help our environment.  Whether it is the sanctuary or a special place near your house, be proactive and get involved to help protect these places. 

So for me and the rest of the crew we say thanks and look for another blog next year!

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Mission Log
Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Making Sense of Sonar

by Will Sautter
NCCOS Biogeography Branch

Hey there, this is Will Sautter again. We have been reading great questions emailed to Coral Connections from Dawson High School in Pearland, TX. A lot of students have asked me specifically what the sonars do and how they make maps.

Sonar stands for Sound Navigating And Ranging. A transducer, or sound emitting sensor, uses high frequency pings to bounce off the bottom and at the same time listen back for the echo. This lets the ships’ crew know how deep the water is or if there are any features on the bottom.

Sonar was originally used to detect enemy submarines and sea mines back in World War II, and later put to more widespread use as an aid for navigating ship channels as well as replacing the old lead line soundings for creating nautical charts. After the war, sonars started to be fitted on commercial and private vessels for many different applications. The technology has changed very little in the last seventy years, but scientists have found it more and more useful for conducting oceanographic research.

Color seafloor image created using sonar. Shallowest areas are orange, with deeper areas yellow, then green.
This is a 2 meter resolution bathymetry model of site 3 at West Flower Garden Bank. This image  was acquired with the Reson 7125 and processed using Caris Hips and Sips bathymetric modeling software. The red colors are shallow and the greens are deeper areas. Image: NCCOS

Today we are using sweeps of sonar beams to collect 3D bathymetry as well as being able to tell what the bottom type actually is.

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One of the main objectives for the 2011 Flower Garden Banks mission is to collect high resolution backscatter imagery with the Reson 7125. Backscatter imagery is basically the reflective intensity of the sea floor, or the energy of the sound waves from sonar pings that return to the ship.

The imagery shows up as a black and white model of different habitats on the seafloor. The brighter the values, the more intense the acoustic energy received, the harder the bottom is. The darker values indicate less intense acoustic returns, meaning that the bottom is softer. We can then analyze the imagery and actually tell if the bottom is sandy or hard reef. We can even see sand ripples, scattered rock fragments and geological features like faults and bedding planes.

Backscatter map of the seafloor, with varying shades of grey indicating density of objects on the bottom.
This is a 2 meter resolution backscatter image of the same site at West Flower Garden Bank. This image was acquired using the the Reson 7125 too, but processed using Hypack Geocoder software. The brighter areas indicate highly reflective surfaces like coral reefs, and the darker areas are soft sediments like fine sand. Notice in the northern area of the image the circular depression surrounded by a ring of rock.We don't know what caused this feature, but hope to investigate the site with drop cameras next year. Image: NCCOS

The biggest problem with sonar data is that the ocean is very noisy. I don’t mean that we can hear fish chatting with each other, although it is possible to detect whale songs, but sound spreads in every direction hitting bubbles, different water densities, and the marine life as well. The noise has to be filtered using Hypack sea floor mapping software to produce a smooth sonar image.

Another problem is a lot of interference from the other sonars that we are running simultaneously with the Reson 7125. This is because the transducer is so sensitive that it picks up the other sonar’s pings from the fisheries acoustics. This creates a false reading, or an alias. I have to try to edit out by selecting which beams are affected by the other sonars and canceling them out. The final result is a smooth image of the bottom that can show depth changes, the steepness of the slopes, and a habitat model used to understand the dynamics of the marine environment.

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Mission Log
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
New View

by Lindy Arbuckle

Hey y’all, this is Lindy Arbuckle. Over the last two weeks I have worked as a support and technical diver performing fish surveys. Although I have been diving in the fabulous Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary for two years, I can honestly say I’ve never seen the banks in quite this way.

Usually a trip to the Banks involves diving the top of the reef cap from one of the permanent mooring lines. Thus the same area of the reef may be visited on each trip. During this trip, random points were scattered across the deeper sections of the reef (between 110-150ft). These are our dive sites. Some of these sites have never seen divers before. Talk about uncharted waters! 

Yellowmouth grouper
A yellow mouth grouper at Flower Garen Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: FGBNMS/Schmahl

In previous trips to the banks I’ve found groupers to be pretty shy fish that stay close to their holes, however today we had a large yellow-mouth grouper rise off the reef and meet us in the water column. He got right in our faces.

I also had a close encounter with a mobula ray (same family as the manta ray) the other day. When we dropped into the water and began our decent the large ray glided right below us. I was only about two feet above it. It was curious enough to turn and make a circle to get a better look at us. It was an amazing sighting.

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Diver floating above expanse of reef
A diver floats above an expanse of reef in the sanctuary. Photo: FGBNMS/Hickerson

During decompression stops the current often carries us over the top of the reef cap. As we drift we get a rare opportunity to relax and watch the entire reef pass by below us. This has given me a new appreciation for the scale of the Banks.

Mission Log
Monday, August 29, 2011
Critter Encounters

by Christine Buckel

Even if you do not see a new species on a dive, there is always an interesting animal encounter. Here is a short list from the last few days. 

A diver holding a marker buoy line while floating underwater with a barracuda.
A curious barracuda swims near diver Mike Winfield during a decompression stop. Photo: NOAA/Buckel

Barracuda  (Sphyraena barracuda):
There are so many barracuda here.  We have had more than 1 close encounter during our decompression stops.  Today for example, a curious cuda met us around 20 feet and hung around for almost 10 minutes.  It was swimming above, below, and between us.  After a while it became braver and made a few close approaches, coming less than 2 feet from by buddy. 

When we surfaced we were told the surface support team saw an inflated puffer fish get eaten by a barracuda.  I wonder if the spines are prickly when swallowed.  Maybe the barracuda we saw was the same one?

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Spotted moray eel leaving a crevice in the reef.
A spotted moray eel extends from its hole.
Photo: NOAA/Buckel

Spotted Moray Eel (Gymnothorax moringa):
At the end of my transect yesterday there was a spotted moray eel.  It extended from its hole about 2 feet and was very curious.  I think our transect tape stretching over its hole made it curious.  Whatever the cause, I was able to get its picture.

A marbled grouper hovering above the reef.
A marbled grouper stops at a cleaning station on the East Bank of FGBNMS. Photo: NOAA/Buckel

Marbled Grouper (Dermatolepis inermis):
This is a new fish sighting for the divers from North Carolina.  We were so excited to see one during a dive.  The distinctive steep slope to their head makes them easy to identify.  This one in particular appeared to be "King of the Reef".  They are very curious fish, following the divers and not shying away from the camera.  This week there is another team of sanctuary researchers out looking for marbled grouper spawning aggregations.  Generally when we've seen marbled grouper, they are solitary or in pairs, no large groups yet…but we continue to look.

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A trumpetfish floating next to a measuring tape on the reef.
A trumpetfish attempts to camouflage itself along the diver's transect tape. Photo: NOAA/Buckel

Trumpetfish (Aulostomus maculatus):
Fish often rely on pattern to camouflage themselves from predators, but sometimes fish also take on a unique shape to help them hide in their natural habitat.  I found this atlantic trumpetfish during a dive at 135 feet.  Typically they drift vertically in the water like a piece of algae, seagrass, or octocoral – but the one we found was horizontal, trying to hide on our transect tape.  You can see the fish's yellow color and shape help it hide perfectly against the transect tape, too bad we had to reel in the tape when we left the bottom.

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Mission Log
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Beautiful Habitat

by Christine Buckel

So far I have completed 10 dives at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and each dive continues to amaze me.  The habitat and reef structure here are unlike any place I have seen.  Typically at the depths we are working (110-150') corals will begin to take a more flat or plate like structure, which is what we are seeing.  However the amount of coral and stacking of plates at some sites can be more than 10 feet high for a single colony.  Amazing!

Star coral growing in a layered, plated fashion
An example of layers of plating coral found in 140 feet of water at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.
Photo: CIOERT/Winfield 

Our dive sites have covered a range of habitat structure from rolling hills of rubble covered with lots of macro algae and some coral, to sharp reef edges, plunging almost 30 feet, stacked with coral plates.

Two scuba divers swimming over a seafloor area covered in algae. One dive has a large quadrat hanging from his gear. Two jacks are swimming with the divers.
Some sites have more algae than coral, like this steep slope of algae and sponge.  Divers Christine Buckel (front) and Brian Degan (back) are ascending the slope after a survey dive. Photo: CIOERT/Winfield

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My buddy Brian Degan surveys fish and my job on the dive is to document habitat cover and species composition.  I swim with a 1 meter by 1 meter square made of PVC, called a quadrat, which is divided into smaller squares that help me estimate the percent cover of the habitat under my quadrat.  I record quadrat four samples along our survey area and identify the cover and species of each invertebrate (corals, sponges, hydroids, and tunicates) and macro algae. 

A quadrat lying across a section of reef.  The quadrat is a square made of PVC pipe with strings stretched across to create a grid pattern.
An example of a surveyed 1 meter by 1 meter quadrat.  The main coral in the image is Montastrea cavernosa (a species of star coral) with some fire coral, Millepora alcicornis (white coral on center right).  Photo: NOAA/Buckel

I have surveyed habitat throughout the Caribbean, Florida Keys, and along the southeast coast of the United States and this is some of the healthiest coral I have seen in a long time.  We have seen very little bleaching or disease. 

Star coral growing in plats on the reef with small brown fish swimming above.
Plating Montastrea franski provides habitat for schooling brown chromis at East Flower Garden Bank.
Photo: CIOERT/Kesling

There are about eight species that make up the majority of the coral we are seeing and a few other types seen occasionally – so the diversity of coral is not extremely high here. But, based on my experience, the amount of coral is unprecedented!

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A massive coral reef habitat stretching into the blue distance.
An example of a high relief site with a mix of coral and rubble that provides ample habitat for fish and invertebrates. 
Photo: CIOERT/Winfield

We are just beginning our day and I am excited to see what lies below the surface of this beautiful blue water.

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Mission Log
Saturday, August 27, 2011
Tech Diving

by Christine Buckel

This research mission is focusing on completing dive surveys at depths between 110 and 150 feet.  Working at this depth requires divers to use decompression diving techniques. To do this type of diving all bottom divers have completed extensive additional training.  This type of diving is also called technical, or tech, diving.

Scuba divers toting a quadrat square through the water above a reef.
Tech divers swim along the transect collecting fish and
habitat data.
Photo: CIOERT/Winfield

Technical diving has many similarities to recreational SCUBA diving, however, it requires a lot more gear.  We have extra tanks, two surface marker buoys, two line reels, along with safety gear including a mirror and knife.  This gear and extra equipment provide redundancy, if there is a problem during a dive, and weighs between 80 and 120 pounds.  The majority of the weight comes from the two tanks we carry on our back, called 'back gas.' For this trip we are breathing regular air, which is 21% oxygen. 

Clipped to the front of our buoyancy compensator is another smaller tank, called a stage bottle, filled with 100% oxygen which we breathe during the ascent between 20 feet and the surface.  The reason for the extra tanks and different gasses is because we are diving deeper (110' – 150') and staying down longer (approximately 30 mins.) than you would using traditional SCUBA gear.  Because of this we go into decompression, which means our bodies have become too saturated with nitrogen to make a direct ascent to the surface so we make multiple stops, or decompression stops, during our ascent. 

Surrounded by schooling creole fish, divers Brian Degan (right) and Mike Winfield (left) begin their ascent from a dive at West Flower Garden Bank. Photo: NOAA/Buckel

Sometimes our ascent time is longer than the amount of time we spend at the bottom.  For example, during yesterday's dive we were at 145 feet for 28 minutes, but it took us 42 minutes to surface.  The long ascents give us plenty of time to look for fish swimming in the water column and examine small swimming invertebrates like jellyfish and tunicates.  Mostly we spend our time watching our depth, time, and fingers shrivel always hoping for a manta ray or whale shark to swim by. 

Support divers Josh Slater (Nancy Foster Ops Officer) and Randy Clark (Mission Chief Scientist), checking on technical divers during an ascent in the sanctuary.
Photo: CIOERT/Winfield

Once we leave the bottom we send up a surface marker buoy.  When our marker hits the surface, support divers, who have been waiting at the surface, descend down our marker line.  Because we cannot make a direct ascent, these divers are our link to the surface.  They hang out during our ascent, monitoring the tech-divers condition, they lighten our load by taking our equipment, and they provide any additional support should it be needed.  So far we've had beautiful conditions and relied on our support divers more for company than assistance.  We hope this trend continues.

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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