Posted by: adorsk | October 22, 2007

Cease and De-Cyst

Red Tide

I got back on the 18th from a cruise on the Oceanus. We were in the gulf of Maine studying Red Tide. It’s been a bit of time since I last posted, the internet on the O-boat has been like a dalmation. By which I mean it’s been rather spotty. But hopefully this post will let you know how things have been going.

I didn’t know much about Red Tide before the cruise. It always sounded more like the name of bad pirate movie rather than a biological phenomenon. But after sailing with chief scientist B and his team of Red Tide researchers I now know more.

Red tide is a large-scale bloom of algae. When conditions are right and nutrients are plentiful, tiny little plant-like organisms in the water go crazy and form dense, red clouds of plankton. Wikipedia has a nice page on it if you want to know more: Red Tide.

Humans would be ok with these plankton if it wasn’t for the fact that they produce harmful neurotoxins. The plankton themselves aren’t dangerous, but filter feeders like clams accumulate the toxins when they eat the plankton. Then when we eat the clams, we get sick. Plankton go crazy, people go crazy.

Unfortunately, we don’t know much about what causes red tide. It would be nice to know more because it can really cause problems for fisheries. In recent years red tide blooms have cost the seafood industry millions of dollars per week. So, if we can figure out what causes it or when it will appear, we get a big win. And thus this past cruise.

The science party was interested in taking a census of a red tide cysts in the gulf of Maine. The cysts are like super-tough ultra-long-lasting red tide seeds. When nutrients aren’t so plentiful the cysts lie dormant in the mud. Then when growing conditions are right, the cysts spring into action and another red tide bloom starts. So, if you can count the cysts in the mud, maybe you can predict what the next bloom will be like.

And so for ten days we cruised around the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy while the science party did a Cyst station roughly every hour, round the clock. One station consisted of getting a sample of mud from the bottom and scraping the top layer into test tubes.

To get the mud, they used two different types of corers. One was the Craib corer, which is a pyramidal frame with a tube at the bottom. It’s kind of like sticking a straw into the bottom and pulling the mud out. The other corer was the Van Veen grab, a pyramidal frame with a steam-shovel type scoop at the bottom. It’s kind of like one of those arcade games where you use a hook to pick up a stuffed zebra. But instead of a zebra, you get mud. A winner every time!

Now that the scientists have their mud back on land, they will look for cysts in their samples in order to generate a red tide cyst census. Hopefully the data from their samples can be combined with other data, like measurements of currents and temperatures, to refine red tide models. And thus is knowledge gained, slowly and painstakingly. Maybe one day we will have a red tide forecast, so you’ll know when not to order the chowder

H & T with the Van Veen Grab:

van veen grab

L scraping a sample:


And the lab whiteboard, fount of info, art, and sediment poetry:

lab board

Ship Life

The science party was a blast to have on board. We had folks from WHOI, students from Northeastern University and one of the SUNYs, and a Canadian fisheries scientist. A good bunch.

When you’re not working, being on the ship is kind of like being in a retirement home. People have trouble walking, they play a lot of cards, all of your meals are provided. It’s a nice place.

One of the especially nice bits of this cruise was that we were frequently near the coast. Northeastern Maine and the Bay of Fundy are beautiful from the sea.

Maine, from the sea:

maine from sea

With regard to charismatic megafauna, we saw Right whales, pilot whales, some very fat dolphins, and plenty of sea gulls. With regard to optical phenomena, there was the usual procession of breathtaking sunsets/rises over the pine lands, and even a spectacular rainbow.


To Maine, by Land

Now that the cruise is over I’m back home for a few weeks. The first day back in port is always the hardest. All the science party disappears, leaving in their wake an evening of crushing loneliness. I should know by now to expect it, but it doesn’t seem to get any easier.

And all of a sudden (for me), the middle of Autumn is here. I didn’t see the leaves change gradually, so it’s like someone swapped out the scenery between acts. The ship is kind of a time machine that momentarily takes you out of time while the rest of the world keeps going.

The ship will be undergoing inspection from the National Science Foundation (NSF), and then I’ll be back on for a mooring cruise at the beginning of November. Check back sometime around mid-November to find out how it goes.

Miscellaneous Pictures

J, our steward, making bread:


a very restrictive ladder:

ladder top

Gull in the morning:

morning wing

There’s a ship under there somewhere…

splash rail

H looks out from the lab:

lab view



  1. […] of how Red Tide grows. Population surveys are one part of this model. One of my cruises last year (Cease and De-Cyst) focused on another part of the model, Red Tide cysts. This time we wanted to count the […]

  2. […] a mathematical model. One thing that is especially interesting is that there were a large number of Red Tide cysts deposited in the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy last Fall. The cysts are kind of like […]

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