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August 4-5, 2009
aboard the R/V Manta

In 2009, the sanctuary piloted a new Science At Sea teacher workshop. This workshop was designed to introduce educators to the workings of a research vessel while involving them in a variety of scientific activities in nearshore and offshore environments. Since this was the pilot year, a handful of educators already familiar with other sanctuary workshops were invited to help us test out the schedule of activities and get the workshop ready for future applicants. Unfortunately, due to lack of funding, this workshop only lasted one more year.


R/V Manta Crew:

Captain Chuck Curry
Mate Ward
Deckhand Jack Gray

Sanctuary Staff:

Shelley DuPuy, Education & Outreach Coordinator
Kelly Drinnen, Education & Outreach Specialist
Jennifer Morgan, Advisory Council & Management Plan Coord.
Ryan Eckert, Research Assistant
Kyle McLeod, Education & Research Assistant

14 Texas Educators

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The Science At Sea workshop actually began on Monday, August 3, at the sanctuary offices. Before heading out to sea, we needed to introduce the teachers to information and skills they would need for the planned activities.

The day began with a discussion about NOAA's Phytoplankton Monitoring Network and the collection of water samples from a site near the R/V Manta's dock at Texas A&M University Galveston (TAMUG). We then split the participants into two groups for separate afternoon activities.

One group stayed at the sanctuary offices to examine water samples under the microscope and learn to identify different types of phytoplankton.

A teacher looking into a microscope on a white table in a classroom.  Another teacher standing beside her with a manual open to plankton identification pages.
Teachers Janene Fowler and Pam Stryker learning to identify different types of phytoplankton at the sanctuary offices. Photo: Connie Kassner

The other group went on a field trip to Moody Gardens where they learned to set up and operate an ROV in the South Pacific aquarium exhibit.

A woman standing at a control box in front of a public aquarium exhibit.  The controls are for an ROV that is in the exhibit.
Connie Kassner at the ROV controls at the South Pacitic exhibit at the Aquarium at Moody Gardens. Marolyn Smith (in the background) is guiding the ROV umbilical to keep it from tangling. Photo: Connie Kassner

A couple of hours later, the two groups swapped places so that everyone had a chance to become somewhat proficient at phytoplankton ID and ROV operations.

The group was now ready for action!

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Special Equipment

Some of the expedition activities were focused on comparing water samples from both nearshore and offshore areas at several different depths. This required the use of Niskin-type sampling bottles and a plankton tow net to collect the samples, and test kits and probes to evaluate the samples. The testing instruments we used were provided by one of the teachers who recently acquired new equipment for use in her aquatic science classes. This was the first test of the new equipment and definitely included a bit of a learning curve.

Other activities were focused on understanding the types of wildlife found at depth. For this, the participants used an ROV on loan from the NOAA Fisheries Galveston Lab and a drop camera available on board the Manta.

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Water Sampling in the Gulf of Mexico

On Tuesday, August 4, we all boarded the R/V Manta bright and early at TAMUG. Once everyone was on board and all belongings were safely stowed, we headed for the Gulf of Mexico by way of the jetties at the east end of Galveston Island.

Our goal was to visit West Flower Garden Bank and return to Galveston all in the same day! This is only possible because of the tremendous capabilities of the R/V Manta, which can do 34 knots in calm seas and thus get us to the sanctuary in 3-4 hours.

About 30 miles from shore, we stopped the vessel to collect water samples representative of an open water, but relatively nearshore, environment. The teachers practiced using the Niskin bottles to collect water at various depths, then conducted a plankton tow using a plankton net suspended by a cable from the A-frame at the back of the boat.

A plankton tow net suspended by a cable from a hoisting frame at the back deck of a boat.  One person is standing on either side of the net holding onto it prior to deployment.  The ocean is visible beyond the back of the boat.
Deckhand Jack Gray assists teacher Misty Yarotsky with deployment of the plankton tow net. Photo: Drinnen/FGBNMS

Water sampling went well, but the plankton tow netted us much more than water! We apparently let out too much cable, thinking that the net would trail farther behind us, but instead it dropped the net too deep and ended up collecting lots of silt and mud. A second tow using less cable was successful.

Following the collection of these samples, we went into the wet lab and started to analyze them as the boat continued offshore. Water was tested for salinity, pH, and a few other parameters just to see what we could learn.

Side view of a person holding a small electronic device at arm's length and looking at the screen.
Teacher Janene Fowler watches the meter for water quality test results. Photo: Drinnen/FGBNMS

Based on sea conditions at this point, it was decided that Stetson Bank was a more reasonable target for the day (it's about 30 miles closer to land).

We decided to wait and look at the plankton samples once we arrived at Stetson Bank. It's much easier to use a microscope when the boat is relatively still. We also wanted to compare our nearshore water samples with those collected in deeper waters around Stetson.

Viewing Stetson Bank

Shortly after arrival at Stetson Bank, the back deck of the Manta was busy with people deploying the ROV, setting up a drop camera, and collecting more water samples.

Ryan and Shelley got the ROV hooked up and ready to run, then allowed each of the teachers a turn at driving it and/or helping keep the umbilical (the communications line connected to the ROV) tangle free on the back deck.

A group of four people, one seated and three standing, behind a control panel for a remotely operated vehicle.
Teacher Pam Stryker operates the ROV while Cindy Ross, Jack Clason and Ryan Eckert look on. Photo: Drinnen/FGBNMS

The ROV was launched from the port (left) side dive platform at the back of the boat. One line handler remained on the dive platform at all times, while another stood up on the main deck.

A person holding a bright yellow cable as it runs off the back end of a boat.  The name of the boat, Manta, is clearly visible across the stern.
Teacher Bob Murphy manages the ROV umbilical line on the back deck of the R/V Manta while another teacher (partially hidden by ladder) manages the line from the port-side dive platform. Photo: Drinnen/FGBNMS

The drop camera was deployed through the "moon pool" in the center of the back deck. This small hatch allows access to the water in between the pontoons of the boat's hull. A quick glance through the moon pool showed several barracuda lurking just below the surface, and crystal blue water.

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An oval hatch opening in the deck of a boat with the metal hatch open toward the top.  Brilliant blue water is visible through the hatch, and a cable runs from above the hatch down into the water.
Looking through the moon pool in the back deck of the R/V Manta. The cable is the runs from the viewing screen, above and behind the hatch, to the drop camera deployed underwater. The shadow to the right of the cable is a barracuda. Photo: Drinnen/FGBNMS

A drop camera is basically a watertight camera at the end of a cable--kind of like soap on a rope. A video monitor at the topside end of the cable shows you whatever is visible through the camera lens. Since there are no motors or controls on the camera, you see whatever appears in front of the lens, but have no control over where that lens is looking, except to change its depth.

A small group of people gathered around a small suitcase-like box.  They are looking at the box to see a camera image being projected from underwater.
Several teachers gather around the drop camera viewing screen to see what a small portion of Stetson Bank looks like. Photo: Drinnen/FGBNMS

Between the ROV and the drop camera, the educators on board got a good look at several species of fish, as well as different kinds of algae, sponges and coral that cover the rocky outcroppings of Stetson Bank. They also learned a lot about the technical difficulties in studying an underwater environment.

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General Observations

While much of the action was on the back deck during our stay at Stetson Bank, some of the teachers were busy inside comparing water samples and identifying phytoplankton.

We also had the opportunity to observe other vessels visiting the sanctuary. At one point a small fishing vessel motored past our bow, with 5 fishermen and twice as many fishing poles on board.

A recreational fishing boat with 5 fishermen and various fishing poles.
A fishing boat full of fishers traveling over Stetson Bank. Photo: Drinnen/FGBNMS

Later, a charter dive vessel, the M/V Fling, tied up to an adjacent buoy and began setting lines for recreational SCUBA operations.

A 100-foot boat approaching a mooring buoy.  A person at the bow of the boat is using a hook to catch the mooring buoy line.
A dive charter vessel, the M/V Fling, prepares to snag a mooring buoy line at Stetson Bank. Photo: Drinnen/FGBNMS

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Return Trip

At about 3 p.m. we headed back toward Galveston. During the trip, educators took turns looking at water samples, watching for wildlife from the lookout seats in front of the pilot house, talking to the captain about navigation, and discussing ways to improve on the day's experiences in future efforts. We finally reached the docks at Texas A&M Galveston about 6 p.m.

Galveston Bay

On Wednesday morning, everyone again boarded the Manta for a day on the water. This time, however, our focus was on the waters of Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel.

Captain Chuck headed out of Galveston toward Barber's Cut, where the R/V Manta rode out Hurricane Ike. This is a side basin of the ship channel away from busy traffic lanes.

Water in the foreground with two rusty looking barges near land in the distance. A suspension bridge with two towers is visible on land in the background.
A view of land areas surrounding Barber's Cut. Photo: Drinnen/FGBNMS

Along the way, we stopped the vessel and teams of teachers took our first inshore water samples using the Niskin bottles and the plankton tow net. Upon arrival at Barber's Cut, these activities were repeated.

Two teachers standing next to each other and holding onto a water sampling instrument made from a PVC tube with Wiffle balls at either end.
Teachers Connie Kassner and Misty Yarotsky prepare the Niskin bottle for sampling water at depth. Photo: Drinnen/FGBNMS

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Both dolphins and jellies were observed during the day. Some of the smallest comb jellies even became part of our plankton samples.

A jelly with long trailing tentacles. This was observed in the Houston Ship Channel while the vessel was stopped in Barber's Cut. Photo: Drinnen/FGBNMS

During the return trip to Galveston, everyone took turns examining plankton under the microscopes and comparing samples from the day before with samples taken in the bay and ship channel.

A teacher placing a prepared slide under a microscope on the crowded countertop in the wet lab on the R/V Manta.  Another teacher has her back to the camera as she looks into another microscope.
Teachers Susie Parkinson and Janene Fowler examining plankton samples under the microscopes in the wet lab of the R/V Manta. Photo: Drinnen/FGBNMS

Teachers also discovered that they could take photos of plankton through the microscope by simply placing the lens of their digital cameras right up to the eyepiece of the microscope. The results were amazing!

A closeup view through a microscope at a semi-transparent animal with pointy projections from the head, two black eyes, and several small legs.  A microscope pointer points directly to this creature.  Other semi-transparent square and round objects are visible in the space around this animal.
Plankton from a water sample taken in Barber's Cut. This photo was taken with a regular digital camera held up to the eyepiece of a microscope. Photo: Janene Fowler

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The goal of this trip was to test out different types of equipment and the logistics of working with 15-20 teachers on board the vessel. While we spent a lot of time sampling, we didn't really analyze the data to any extent. But, we did get a good idea of what we want to get from these activities in the future.

All told this was a very successful trip. We got a lot of good feedback from the participants and look forward to offering this workshop to more teachers in the future.

Unfortunately, due to lack of funding, this workshop only lasted one more year.

Although we do not currently offer any scheduled workshops, we would be happy to provide customized programming for school districts at your location or ours. Just send an email to and let us know what you have in mind.

Please also check out our For Teachers page for other educational resources.

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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