This cruise was aimed at using the C-BASS (Camera Based Assessment Survey System) designed by the team at the Center for Ocean Technology (COT) at the College of Marine Science. We planned on going to different areas on the West Florida Shelf (in the Gulf of Mexico) to film fish assemblages. Sarah Grasty, a master’s student in the lab, is analyzing the footage to see if marine protected areas enhance fish populations. The camera is an innovative new technology that will help with fish stock assessment and advance fisheries management with better-informed science. A second goal was to take fish samples – liver, bile, muscle, and otoliths (the tiny set of ear bones that record age and growth in annual layers, just like the way tree rings are formed every year) – to be analyzed for traces of oil from the BP spill, and see if oil exposure slows fish growth.
Day 1: A rocky start
Heavy equipment on the aft deck of the R/V Weatherbird II
First impressions are important, and I have to say that this boat is great! In addition to all the great equipment for doing our science, there is a nice, large galley and dining area, the bunk spaces have real beds and small closets, and the bathrooms are full size with real showers. Not all the creature comforts of home, but it was definitely comfortable as far as boats go.
As soon as we made it out of Tampa Bay, Steve decided that he wanted to go fishing. Within a half hour he had caught a barracuda. We opened it up to get samples of liver, muscle, and take its otoliths. After much hacking, Steve was only able to get one otolith out, and it was teeny tiny. We also took out its heart, stomach, and gonads for a little anatomy lesson. Inside the stomach there was a lizard fish, a fresh meal that was gobbled down in just three bites! He then caught a tunny (a.k.a. a false albacore or bonito) which we sampled the same as the barracuda, plus a bile sample.
Unfortunately, when we got out to the gas pipeline where we were going to do some initial tests, there were problems with communications between the C-BASS and the computers in the lab. It took the COT team all day and night to assess and fix the problem, so we weren’t able to film on Day 1.
Day 2, 3 & 4: Success!
Sarah with Alex and Chad from the COT team, watching the live camera feed in the lab
After a long day and night of working, the COT crew finally got the C-BASS up and running on Day 2! At that point we were in the Florida Middle Grounds, which is a “habitat area of particular concern.” Flying the camera from inside the lab is tricky – it consists of watching the sonar feed on one screen (which shows our depth and the bottom features so we know how much to move up or down in the water), watching the live camera feed on another screen, watching the GPS positioning of the boat on yet another screen, and talking to the winch operator outside on a radio to adjust the camera’s position. Needless to say, there were a few kinks to work out along the way. We were able to get some good footage, despite a few run-ins with the bottom.
Day 3 was a great day with the camera! There were no major issues and we got even better footage of fish than the day before – red snapper, amberjacks, butterfly fish, and angel fish among them. We also saw several pods of dolphins playing around the camera, especially when we were retrieving C-BASS.
Some curious dolphins hanging around the boat
On Day 4 we made it to our second site, Madison-Swanson. Again we saw a lot of dolphins, especially on our first retrieval. There were tons of red snapper over many of the rocky reefs and we deemed one of the spots that was especially abundant as “Sarah’s Rock.”
Day 5: Opportunistic fish sampling
Working with a hacksaw to get otoliths out of the brain cavity of a Red Snapper
In another bout of bad luck, we lost the C-BASS during our second transect. A rocky ledge came out of nowhere and caught on the camera, which put extra pressure on the winch cable, causing it to snap. Luckily no one was hurt. Since we had no way to retrieve the C-BASS, we went to a different location to collect some fish samples. Sarah and I collected samples of liver, bile, muscle, and otoliths. We got a wide range of fish, including red snapper, porgies, Gag grouper, vermillion snapper, speckled hind, and red grouper. We didn’t use all of them for samples (mainly just the red snapper and porgies), but they all became filets, several of which we had for lunch and dinner over the next couple days – they were deee-licious.
Day 6 & 7: Attempts at retrieval
Overnight and into Day 6 we steamed to Panama City to pick up an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) and some supplies (rope, buoys, a grappling hook), which we hoped would allow us to find the C-BASS and retrieve it. The ROV was driven up from USF that morning by another student in the Murawski lab. We spent the day in Panama City and a few of us took time to stretch our legs on land.
The COT team working on getting the ROV down
An aside: I would advise anyone not to go to a book store when you’re fresh off 5 days on a boat. The dock rock combined with trying to read book titles was enough to just about knock me over.
On Day 7 we returned to the site where we lost the camera and tried to find it with the ROV. The idea was to find the C-BASS, attach a rope to it with the ROV, and then pull it up onto the boat using the winch and a heavy duty rope. But the wind and currents were working against us and there were some electrical problems with the ROV so we weren’t able to get the ROV down to the C-BASS for retrieval. It is still sitting at the bottom of the Gulf in about 350 ft of water. A commercial ROV recovery team will have to return in a couple weeks to get it.
Day 8: Return home
After failed attempts at retrieving C-BASS, we started to steam home. Along the way on Day 8 we stopped to Skype in to the Florida Board of Governor’s meeting – Steve talked about the work we were doing on the cruise and Sarah and I gave quick snippits about the work we’re doing for our respective theses. We pulled in to the dock at the College just in time for dinner at home.
It was a little bit of a rocky cruise, not without its problems, but all in all it was a great experience! I’m looking forward to the next one!
Sunset over the Gulf of Mexico