It is 5:20am, and the galley begins to stir. Shuffled footsteps tread heavy around the buffet line as bleary eyes blink quickly to adjust to the fluorescent lighting, a sharp contrast to the pitch-black staterooms from the night before. The coffee can’t brew fast enough. Human masses slouch into the galley benches, huddled around their steaming cups of caffeine and warmth. Breakfast is inhaled over slightly incoherent conversations of past dreams, morning rants, and light banter among crew. Soon enough the stern of the R/V Ocean Starr will awake with the sound of clanking shackles, whirring winches, and buzzing cranes. Thermal layers, rain gear, life vests, hard hats, and Xtratuf boots are all donned as the generators kick on to power the crane, winch, and A-frame. The cold, brisk ocean air slaps the remaining cobwebs and morning sleep abruptly through the doorways leading out to the back deck. The Ocean Starr has slowed its approach to station NM1, one of the mooring recovery stations.

The CTD instrument used to collect water samples aboard the R/V  Ocean Starr . Photo credit: Brendan Smith/NPRB

The CTD instrument used to collect water samples aboard the R/V Ocean Starr. Photo credit: Brendan Smith/NPRB

Dave Strauss, of the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, powers on the CTD instrument from the inside lab with an old Seabird deck power unit. These instruments look as if they were made in the 1980’s and appear out of place next to the modern science equipment splayed about the lab—huge, heavy, square boxes with several power switches. Yet these boxes provide the lifeblood to power the CTD and trigger the 12 10-L bottles around the instrument to close. The winch cable is energized and connected to the Seabird. Three laptops remain open on the workbench in front of Dave. His head moves like a swivel between all three. Without even seeing the CTD on deck, Dave communicates with the winch operator to raise and lower the instrument through the water, collecting—mining—the ocean seawater to uncover its underwater mysteries.

“Alright, winch, lower the CTD 5 meters and hold,” Dave radios to Larry, the AB seamen controlling the winch.

“Roger,” responds Larry as Dave examines the computer output from the CTD. The science team begins to assemble in the lab clustered around Dave. As the CTD descends into the deep, all are looking anxiously for chlorophyll max (where the largest concentration of phytoplankton are), nitrogen and oxygen levels, and the points where the ocean gets colder (thermocline) and saltier (halocline).

“I’ll take 3 bottles at 20 meters,” Lisa Eisner informs Dave as she checks her data sheet for her productivity experiment (stay tuned for future blog).

“I just need one,” says Anna Mousney, a recent undergrad from Montana State University collecting harmful algal bloom (HABs) samples. She is primarily looking at water samples to determine if there is the presence of Alexandrium, a dinoflagellate that produces saxitoxin, and Psuedo-nitzchia, a diatom that produces domoic acid as a biproduct. If domoic acid sounds unfamiliar, it is what causes amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP).

“Okay, but no one takes from bottle 12 until Sarah gets her sample,” Dave commands. Sarah is collecting the first water from a Niskin bottle to sample oxygen gases.

“Alright, winch, we have collected our samples and powered down the CTD. CTD is all secured.”


Each scientist collects their bottles from the lab, some 290mL bottles, Nalgenes, and others big and small. Dave gathers his hard hat and prepares for the next series of science ops retrieving a mooring that has been sitting on the ocean floor for over a year. This particular instrument moored underwater has been collecting the same type of physical oceanography that the CTD just collected, but over a year-span. The CTD deployed by Dave and the science crew provide an excellent snapshot of the physical condition of the water at the time of the collection, but these moorings that are hunkered on the ocean bottom provide key insight into how the water behaves in a much more long-term scale.

Processing seawater samples aboard the R/V  Ocean Starr . Photo credit: Brendan Smith/NPRB

Processing seawater samples aboard the R/V Ocean Starr. Photo credit: Brendan Smith/NPRB

As our scientists bunch around the CTD once it has been secured to the ship’s deck, they begin drawing water and filling their bottles. Immediately, I am reminded by what I saw just two days prior upon docking in Nome. Several gold dredgers, of various states of seaworthiness, were heading out to the shallow Norton Sound in hopes of vacuuming up gold pay dirt. Some of their equipment were fashioned rather rudimentarily to keep costs down, and others were full operations.

I couldn’t help to think that while they were mining for precious gold, we were mining for precious water. Collectively the water samples that the Arctic Program has been collecting has been a huge mining operation to discover what the ocean conditions are like in the Chukchi, Beaufort, and North Bering Seas. You can’t form this information into a necklace or bracelet, but its value is unquestionable and so critical to better understand the changing Arctic. Fortunately for our science crew, we have state-of-the-art equipment that measure samples in so many different ways. We have instruments collecting surface water samples while underway (oxygen and nitrate samples), underwater acoustics to detect the presence of whales, sophisticated moorings that collect water, CTD, bioacoustics, and sediment.