Posted by: adorsk | June 9, 2008

Don’t Eat the Chowder

Word on the sea is: “Don’t eat the chowder”. The Oceanus just returned from a Red Tide survey cruise in the gulf of Maine where we found toxic Red Tide in abundance.

This cruise was the sequel to the previous red tide cruise. D and his gang along with the Maine-iacs from the University of Maine were back to repeat their previous cruise track!!LINK!!. Almost everyone from the earlier cruise was back on board, with a few new faces in the Maine group and O in D’s group.

The main goal of this cruise was to survey the Spring Red Tide bloom in progress. In order to catch the rapidly growing Maine Red Tide bloom we started along the coast of Southern Maine near Oqunquit and Wells. We went up the coast about as far as Harpswell and then cruised over to George’s Bank before finishing up on the backside of Cape Cod.

We were very fortunate to have fantastic weather. Not warm yet, but sunny and calm. There was only one moderately stormy day. Usually we could count on a good sunrise and sunset.

Sunrise Through the Window

Sunset in Southern Maine

Survey operations were the same as on the previous cruise. The science party had three watches that changed every fours hours. We would steam for 8 miles, dunk the CTD, steam for 8 miles, dunk the CTD…lather, rinse, repeat. We ended up doing 110 stations total.

At each station the CTD water would go through a kind of hydrological obstacle course. Some of it was sieved to filter cells. Some of it was filtered and frozen for later analysis. And some cells become TV stars. That’s right, it’s Cell TV, the only network that’s all cells, all the time. The cells are actually just part of ‘live counts’, simple counts taken by looking at water through a microscope.

Cell TV: (photo by BGC)

Cell TV

B per-sieves you! (photo by BGC)

B perceives you!

Sometimes we would do a toxicity station. Toxicity is not solely dependent on the number of cells, it also depends on how much punch each cell packs. To get a measurable amount of toxicity we needed a lot of cells. We hooked up one of a long plastic hose to a pump, attached the other end to the CTD, and sent it down to 50 meters to suck up a goodly amount seawater. Each toxicity station took about an hour. I could tell whenever a toxicity station was going on from anywhere on the ship because the pump was so noisy. It sounded like a lawnmower sobbing through a bullhorn- GRRRRRRWEEEESZCHH GRRRRRRWEEEESZCHH GRRRRRRWEEEESZCHH.

C the Bosun recovering the CTD with the pump hose attached: (photo by BGC)

Pump Recovery

J & P (from UMass @ Dartmouth) sieved the water through a plankton ned to get savory serving of Red Tide pudding. This mimics what shellfish are doing. As shellfish filter-feed they accumulate toxins.

J & P with the pump: (photo by BGC)

Get Pumped

We also did some work with drifters. Not social work with hobos, but current studies with floating buoys. A drifter is basically a floating GPS-on-a-stick. They look like a modernist fabric sculpture with lobster bouys attached. They’re pretty easy to deploy, just toss ’em over the side and let the currents take them to their fate. A guy back at WHOI, J, tracks them via satellite and uses them to observe how currents flow. Then we can use that information to predict where the Red Tide will go.

K tosses down a drifter to D:


But forget all that science stuff. The real purpose of the drifters is to keep us entertained on the ship. There is the drifter pool in which we guess which drifter will go the longest distance, or which will be first to the shore. Usually the drifters end up in someone’s back yard along the coast. So if you see people ambling across your lawn with something that looks like a white fabric sculpture, it’s probably not Jean-Claude & Christo, just some oceanographers.

All the water sample data, cell counts, toxicity data, and current measurements eventually end up as part of 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 hibernating Red Tide cells. If the number of Cysts can predict how large a Red Tide bloom will form, then we would we have a way of getting a seasonal Red Tide forecast. That would be a huge win. Shell fishermen would be able to predict whether they should work on their boats over the winter in preparation for a good shellfish crop or head down to Florida and wait out a nasty bloom.


The data collected on a cruise are important, but I think that there the intangibles that come from cruise are just as important. Cruises are places for researchers to meet up, talk shop, and train the next generation. I see the more experienced scientists talking with graduate students and post-docs about why model x doesn’t apply here, or whether nutrient uptake is a stronger factor than tidal recycling. The apprenticeship system is still a big part of science.

Ship Life

Ship life was pretty routine for me. Wake up at 5:30, read/study Chinese, breakfast, work, lunch, work, dinner, read, catch the sunset, and play guitar before going to bed around 9:30. There were a few times when I had to get up in the middle of the night to fix the CTD, but not too many.

I also saw quite a few flitters. There were finback whales, seagulls, and dolphins. The dolphins liked to play in the ship’s bow wake. It was probably like surfing for them. Do Cheetas like to run in front of trucks on African highways? The dolphins were incredibly fast. It seemed like they have rockets thrusting them along as they effortlessly dart back-and-forth in front of the ship.

Charismatic Megafauna: (photo by BGC)


Season Closer

The next cruise is a mud cruise. We’ll be going Southeast of WHOI, just off the shelf, to do some sediment coring. it’s just a short cruise, four days, and then we’re done for the season! Check back in a couple weeks to see how it goes.

Thanks for reading.

Assorted Images

sometimes even scientists forget… (photo by BGC)

Because even scientists forget...(photo by BGC)

the lab (photo by BGC)

The lab (photo by BGC)

J & B in the library (photo by BGC)

B & J in the library (photo by BGC)

drifter close up

Drifter Close-up

K knows how to ‘buoy’ our spirits

K knows how to buoy our spirits

tail of a whale

Tail of a Whale



  1. Hey! That was an awesome post. The wildlife and sunsets look awesome…and it’s so cool that you’re still studying Chinese! Also, damn the red tide, cause I love seafood…::sighs:: Let me know the next time you are in Boston!

  2. Hey Christie,

    Thanks for the note. I’ll definitely come say ‘hey’ next time I go to Boston.

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