Sunday, August 7, 2011

Traps! Cameras! Action!!

A few weeks ago (yeah, I've been slacking in the blog department), I had the opportunity to go on an offshore research trip for work.  I was a bit nervous about being gone for 2 weeks, especially since I've got so many furry critters.  Thanks to a wonderful and bunny-savvy friend, they had a place to stay while I was gone!

Anyway, FWRI (Fish & Wildlife Research Institute) does a variety of offshore research.  The particular trip I went on was the traps & cameras cruise.   This research targets hard bottom habitats in up to 80 meters of water on the West Florida Shelf.  A sidescan sonar is used to find appropriate areas to sample, then two different types of gear are set on the spots.  Stationary Underwater Camera Arrays (SUCAs) and chevron fish traps are both used.  The SUCAs gather film footage, which is later analyzed for information about fish populations at these sites, and several of the fish captured in the traps are used to gather life history information.

Here's a photo of the SUCAs:

And a photo of the chevron traps:
 The research cruise lasted 10 days, and we were traveling aboard the R/V Weatherbird II.  The vessel was 115', so it was fairly comfortable space-wise.  We had beautiful weather to start with, but a couple days into our voyage, the weather turned.  It was nice to work in drizzly, overcast conditions as opposed to the blazing heat (and that deck got HOT!), but things became a bit of a challenge as the swells built to 8 feet.  I am proud to say I did NOT get seasick.  I did almost fall out of the shower that night.  You haven't lived until you've taken a navy-style shower in a facility the size of a phone both in 8-10 foot seas.  We were forced to abandon the original plan and head to our southernmost site to avoid the weather.  Ironically, this is the fortune that our PI (principal investigator) received in her fortune cookie the night before:

Once we moved south, we were back on track.  We were about 100 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, which was neat.  We were visited by spotted dolphins pretty much every morning.  We swore that they knew they were being filmed as the cameras went over - when we reviewed the footage we were treated to quite a show! 

I liked the solitude of being so far out to sea.  One of my favorite things to do was sit on deck and watch the sunset (if we were finished with the day's work by then, anyway!)  It was quite beautiful, but at the same time it was almost eerie.  It's a strange and humbling feeling to be completely surrounded by water.  It feels like freedom, but sometimes it's almost suffocating.  That's a bit of a contradiction, but that's the best I can describe it!

Here's a photo of one of the gorgeous sunsets:
Some of the bright points of the trip were the food (we had an excellent cook - I didn't go hungry, and if you know me, you know that's quite the thing), seeing neat sea critters, watching the above-mentioned sunsets, the gorgeous blue water, seeing my second water spout ever, being out in the middle of nowhere, and getting to live and breathe SCIENCE for 10 days. (and yes, watching the stupid dolphins.  Geez, I guess everyone is a sucker for Flipper sometimes)

A moray eel:
Here I am measuring a nice grouper!  (And I totally rocked the hardhat & life vest - I'm not even wearing the shrimp boots on this day!)
And here I am just being my nerdy self:

There were, of course, things I did not enjoy about being offshore.  The lack of communication is both a blessing and a curse.  It's kind of nice to get away from it all, but believe me, I was on Facebook and checking my email as soon as we got back into cell-phone reception range!  I needed to satiate my thirst for news and social networking!  The bunk was not exactly the most comfortable place to rest.  The stools in the long lab were NOT comfortable either, and that's pretty much where we were if we weren't on deck or in our bunks.  We worked hard, but we had a LOT of downtime.  I got tired of reading (read 4 books), and for me, that's saying something.  The noise.  Oh, the noise.  The engine noise of the boat is constant.  You get used to it, but the silence was bliss once I got back on dry land.  I got really tired of constantly rocking.  Around day 7, all my stuff was falling over while I was in the bathroom, and I had a moment of "I HAVE GOT TO GET OFF OF THIS STUPID ROCKING BOAT!!"  There's not much privacy either.  That's why I relished any evening I got to spend on deck watching the sunset.  Oh, and my hands constantly smelled like dead mackerel.  Not that I'm not used to the smell of dead fish, but...yeah.
The Long Lab (where we spent a lot of time!):

 Home away from home:

All in all, it was a good experience.  I got to see some cool stuff, and we got a lot of science done!  However, I was very happy to be back on dry land, go pick up my furry kids, and go home and collapse on my couch (which I fantasized about while sitting on the horrible lab stool).  Oh, I did take a nice, long, hot shower before I collapsed on the couch.  Believe me, it was a luxury to leave the water on the entire time.  My hands smelled slightly less of dead mackerel when I was done.

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