The Beacon

Gulf of Mexico Coral Expedition - Part One

Oceana marine biologist Margot Stiles reports from the Gulf of Mexico, where she is assisting on a marine habitat project.

This week I'm participating in an oceanographic research cruise through NOAA, the government agency in charge of fisheries. The purpose of the cruise is to map and document fish habitat in the Gulf of Mexico including filming of deep-sea coral gardens that have never been seen before. Some of the ridges, pinnacles, and coral gardens we are visiting currently hang in the balance as the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and national leaders consider whether to protect them from destructive fishing by the end of 2008.

Oceana actively supports protection of deep-sea coral ecosystems and though I spend most of my time writing, reading, and telling people about their beauty, this will be my first chance to see them live and in person. This week's cruise covers the eastern Gulf of Mexico from Sarasota, Florida around to Pascagoula, Mississippi.

The scientists on the cruise are fish-focused and are here for a closer look at a series of high points that stand out on the map above the surrounding seafloor. We hope that the robot's video camera will reveal hard seafloor carpeted in corals and busy with snapper and grouper fish. This is the kind of habitat that we work so hard to protect, and the first step is to find out exactly where it is.

Late last night I arrived in Panama City Beach, Florida, after two flights and a several hour drive from Tallahassee. After a quick sleep, Chris Gardner from the Panama City NOAA lab picked me up at 7am at the hotel. Despite Chris's advice, I forgot to reset my clock to central time and am waiting outside an hour earlier, at 6am. Luckily, things improve quickly from there as we stop at the local bakery and arrive at the lab. The dock and laboratory in Panama City are located on Bay Point next to a large US Navy facility, and are quiet early in the morning. We met another NOAA crew member who had come to deliver a replacement part for the gyroscope, needed to repair the ship's internet, radar, and other important functions. If the gyroscope is not fixable the ship will return to port. Fingers crossed!

We promptly boarded and set off in the Harold B, a smaller vessel based at the lab, and named for the skipper's dad. Both the gyroscope-part-deliverer and the NOAA librarian join us for the ride out to meet the R/V Gordon Gunter. R/V stands for research vessel, as compared to F/V for fishing vessel or other designations.

As we crossed the bay we were surrounded by fishing charter vessels and shore-based anglers catching Spanish mackerel. The captain expressed disbelief that people are willing to pay $200 to crisscross the bay and catch mackerel that are thick in the water and easy to hook. Apparently you can catch 40 or 50 fish a day. As if to illustrate his point, a silvery fish flung itself a foot out of the water mid-hunt while chasing its prey.

On the Harold B we put on streamlined navy blue life vests as we approached the GG (nickname for the Gordon Gunter) in three to four foot seas, a little bit rough for this kind of operation. The Harold B pitched and rolled in the rough water as the captain described our plan for at-sea exchange of personnel. In the distance the GG grew steadily larger from a white blotch on the horizon to a large white ship. From our perspective low on the water it soon towered over us. As the Gunter drew near it turned 180 degrees and began to sail away. We pulled up alongside and tied up while both ships are underway. Two debarking crew members stepped down from the side, and the gyroscope part, mail and I are taken onboard.

The Gordon Gunter is considered a cushy ship, with almost all solo staterooms, a gym, internet (weather-dependent), heat and a TV in each room and other luxuries. The TV has several channels: one that broadcasts movies, three that show each of the winches on the ship so you can find out if there's any action happening, and one that shows a map of the ship's location. Like all large ships it has a collection of hundreds of movies on video, which sport a small USN (Navy) logo in the lower left hand corner of the screen as you watch them. Ship life alternates between boredom and intense work periods, so movies are key. The movie broadcasts to all the small TVs in the rooms, so you're not allowed to stop it once started in case someone else is watching.

In the morning I meet the scientific party and some of the crew, and complete my safety orientation with Hector Casanueva. All fire and emergency equipment and systems are painted red, mustering for emergency situations is in the stern between the smokestacks on the top deck, except for abandon ship which is one deck lower. Two large closets marked ?DC? for damage control are a grim testament to how serious a situation a real fire at sea would be.

I'm issued a hard hat to be worn at all times on deck, a life vest, and a work vest (smaller life vest). By far the highlight of the orientation is trying on my gumby suit, a fire-engine red neoprene survival suit fully outfitted with a drysuit-style zipper, hood, strobe light, whistle, inflatable back floatation, and big round feet that truly look like they belong to Gumby or Pokey. There is a large, extra-large, and somewhere they locate a size small for me.

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