Step Aboard America’s Most Advanced Ocean Research Vessel
Right now, off the west coast of the United States, the world’s quietest non-military ship is cutting through the waves and deploying advanced underwater sensors, high-tech trawling equipment and sensitive sonar arrays. All in search of a few good sardines.
(From Wired / by Joe Hanson) – The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration manages a fleet of aircraft and ships charged with collecting data on the nation’s oceans, atmosphere and everything in between.
Recently, NOAA’s ship the Bell M. Shimada docked at San Francisco’s Exploratorium (above), midway through a survey mission between San Diego and Vancouver Island, Canada. WIRED got a chance to look inside one of the most advanced marine research vessels on Earth.
The Bell M. Shimada, launched in 2010, measures 209 feet in length, and to the untrained eye looks a lot like a commercial fishing vessel. But instead of fish-processing conveyer belts, it’s full of advanced scientific instruments. The newest NOAA ship in its class, its crew is charged with monitoring west coast fisheries from Vancouver to Baja. With a range of 12,000 nautical miles, NOAA can conduct field studies stretching up to 40 days a time. Their current mission found them surveying schools of sardines and hake along the Pacific coast, both important food sources for larger fish and mammals.
(Above) Even the most advanced fisheries research vessel in the world, its bridge armed with multi-band radar, terrain-sensing sonar and forward-looking infrared sensors, still needs paper maps. Just in case.
(Above) From the bridge, the NOAA crew can not only pilot the ship, but also command the ship’s advanced sonar and fishing equipment. According to Commander Scott Sirois, they operate much like those on a commercial fishing vessel would, scanning the sea below them for the characteristic blip of a fish school and then trawling large nets behind them to reel in their study subjects.
(Above) The equipment used by the crew of the Bell M. Shimada to net their catch has some key differences from that used by commercial fishermen. Instead of thousands of fish, the NOAA scientists only want to catch a few dozen at a time. Visible on the above right, their fishing net is armed with an array of GoPro cameras. This allows them to tally their haul one fish at a time, making every effort not to disrupt the populations they are studying.
On the left, a net has a large metal gate with bars. This device is wide enough to allow fish inside the net, but prevents marine mammals like dolphins and seals from getting tangled up in the gear by diverting them to the side. This science is dolphin-safe.
Phil White (above) is the chief survey technician on board the Bell M. Shimada. Much of the work on this fisheries research vessel doesn’t involve the fish themselves, but rather the ocean they live in. Arrays of automated collection bottles called rosettes are lowered over the side to return water samples from various depths.
Inside the chemistry lab, White and fellow technicians analyze those water samples for characteristics like conductivity and density. These data are then uploaded to NOAA computers on shore to give scientists from Ghana to Galveston an up-to-date picture of ocean conditions.
The array of tubes and boxes on the wall behind him measures the seawater’s carbon dioxide content by spraying a droplet of seawater through a laser beam. Increased CO2 concentrations in the ocean caused by climate change can affect the health of plankton as well as the fish that depend on them for food.
Every hour while at sea, a pump aboard the Bell M. Shimada delivers a sample of seawater, and all the microscopic life it holds, to the ship’s chemistry lab. There, plankton content is measured and any fish or squid eggs are counted and marked for species before storing them away in their freezer. Blood and tissue samples from the research catch are also analyzed here on this floating data collection platform. Depending on the mission, the scientists on board will collect data like sex, size, feeding behavior, age, and reproductive condition of the fish.
Above, Commander Scott Sirois holds a vial of squid eggs collected outside of San Francisco Bay.
The heart of the Bell M. Shimada’s cutting-edge science capability lies within the acoustics lab. Randy Cutter (above), a NOAA scientist, spends his days “listening” to the ocean. On the array of monitors before him, he can access all the data collected in the ship’s wake, including sonar surveys and images of the fish collected up in the processing lab.
A sonar array mounted to the bottom of the ship is used to echolocate fish and map shallow terrain. Unlike military sonar, which has been linked to whale deaths, the high frequencies used by the scientists are not thought to interfere with marine life. Computers onboard the ship stitch these sound slices into 3-D reconstructions of the world below them, able to create models of fish schools and detailed landscapes.
The real marvel of a ship like the Bell M. Shimada is its acoustic signature. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Every moving part on the ship, from the enormous diesel-electric engines to small ventilation fans and oil pumps, is mounted on specially-designed shock absorbers. Everything from the paint to the prop has been carefully engineered to minimize noise, which would otherwise contaminate the low-impact research. By decreasing vibrations within the hull, the ship is able to travel through the seas with the quietest sound signature of any non-military ship in the world.
Above, one of the 1,360 kW diesel generators is shown mounted on shock-absorbing dampeners.
All photos by Ariel Zambelich/Wired