Big Questions

Hello everyone, my name is Andy Bedingfield, and the following is a journal style blog of my science adventures at sea on the Research Vessel Atlantis. My goal is to capture what it is like to live and work onboard a scientific research vessel. In My blog posts, I will talk about the science mission we are on as well as what it is like to live, eat and sleep on a moving hunk of steel in the middle of ocean with 50 of your new best friends. 

Andy Bedingfield
Andy Bedingfield

SETTING THE STAGE, July 13, 2019
By Andy Bedingfield

I am a high school science teacher, and I was lucky to receive a research experience for teachers (RET) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to have an at-sea experience on the R/V Atlantis. My goal for this trip is to learn as much as I can about the science and lifestyle that goes on in an NSF funded oceanographic research cruise. When I get back to land I will turn everything I know into a learning experience for middle and high school students.

planktonic baby fish

We are going to sea for two weeks to study plankton and neuston. Anything that is alive and drifts through the ocean is considered plankton. This word comes from the Greek word for wanderer. Plankton can range from single cell viruses and bacteria, to tiny plants, to tiny complex animals like baby fish. If it is in the ocean, is alive, and can’t swim against the ocean’s current, it is plankton. Neuston (one of the new words I learned on this cruise), have pretty much the same definition, but with the caveat that they only live on the surface of the water right were the ocean meets the air. The word neuston comes from the Greek word for swimmer.

At its heart, science is about answering questions by collecting data (information) and then using that data to figure out how something works. The big question that we are trying answer on this cruise is:

How are the plankton and neuston populations faring as humans have a larger and larger impact on the environment?

To accomplish this, we need fully understand their lifecycles and look for long term changes over the years.

We are collecting data in two locations: off Newport, Oregon, and off Trinidad Head in Northern California. In both of these locations, we sail east and west along a line known as a transect. Scientific studies have been done on these same transects for years. This is a good example of scientists controlling variables. If we just wondered around the ocean collecting samples in different places, it would be really hard to see if there was an increase or a decrease in plankton populations over time.

Screen shot of Ship Tracker showing how the R/V Atlantis moves along a transect line
Visit Ship Tracker to see how the R/V Atlantis is moving along a transect line.

There are five ways we will be collecting data on this research cruise:

  • MOCNESS (multiple opening and closing net and environmental sampling system): a multiple opening net system that allows us to catch our study subjects and bring them on board. With this system there are two sets of nets with different mesh sizes, MOC 1 is 333 microns, MOC 4 is 1000 microns. In addition to the nets this system collects data about the water such as temperature, salinity, and depth. This device is lowered to 100 meters while the ship is moving very slowly, about 2 miles an hour. When we send it over the side, the first net, called net zero is open. Once the net gets to 100 meters, we close net zero and open net one, and then bring it up to 75 meters. At 75 meters we close net one and open net two, and then bring it up to 50 meters, and so on until we reach the surface. Once we get the net system back on board, which in itself is a complex and dangerous operation, we take the all of the samples on board sort them into jars and preserve them in ethanol for later analysis.
  • ISIIS (in situ ichthyoplankton imaging system): an underwater high definition camera system that we tow through the water. In plain language this is an underwater camera system (imaging system) designed to take pictures of baby fish (ichthyoplankton) where they live (in situ).
  • A neuston net system: a single opening net system that sits right on the surface to collect neuston as we tow it through the water. Neuston are what the we call any plants or animals the inhabit the surface of the water. We tow this through the water at a slow speed. I sits right on top as it is towed and looks like a manta ray.
  • CTD (conductivity, temperature, and depth) device: this gets dropped straight over the side while we are stationary. This system is measuring these parameters in real time, and it also has 24 bottles that can be open and closed automatically. This way scientists can collect water samples at different depths and bring them back to the lab for analysis.
  • A vertical net: this also looks like a wind sock. This net is dropped down to 100 meters and pulled back up to the surface while the ship is stationary.

The data collected by these instruments will help answer big Science Questions posed by researchers. One question is:

What is the interaction between the different types of plankton and their food (which is also mostly other plankton)?

The specialized MOCNESS has multiple nets that can be opened and closed, enabling the crew to take samples at different depths. This issue with this method, though, is that if you drag the net for a 1000 meters, you smash everything in that stretch together. The baby fish can’t really swim against ocean currents and neither can their food. They are both at the mercy of the current. This fact determines if we consider them plankton or not. When you pull up your net, you may see food and baby fish, but you don’t really know if the food was close enough to the baby fish for them to eat it.


That’s where the ISIIS system comes into play. This is basically a high definition camera system we tow behind the boat which takes photo images of plankton in the water column. In the old days, graduate students used to look at thousands of images and count critters by hand, but now this is done automatically using a very smart computer system. With this system, researchers know not only how many baby fish are in the water and how much food, but where they are located in relation to each other.

My job on board will be two help the science crew (a mix of college professors, post docs, graduate students and one undergraduate student) work on the deck collecting the samples and running the equipment outlined above. 

Andy Bedingfield teaches Science at Taft 7-12 High School in Lincoln City and is part of the Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program on the R/V Atlantis cruise taking place July 13-27, 2019.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *