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Ready to go, but waiting on the weather

August 29, 2017

Nothing puts a damper on research at sea like giant swells and strong winds – exactly what tropical disturbance number ten has provided the past few days. Instead of shoving off Monday, our departure has been delayed until Wednesday, giving the ocean a chance to settle down.

Practicing lifting the AUV Sentry while waiting for the storm to pass.

Practicing lifting the AUV Sentry while waiting for the storm to pass.

Our time in port was not wasted however! We practiced deploying and recovering AUV Sentry. Everyone worked their lines while we were securely tied up to the dock. Getting Sentry into the water takes many hands, and this opportunity to run through the steps in a very stable setting will make us more efficient once we get out into the open ocean.

Martha and Zac examining the map to determine launch locations.

Martha and Zac examining the map to determine launch locations.

Chief Scientist Martha Nizinski and  Sentry Expedition Lead Zac Berkowitz worked on detailed dive plans for all the proposed study sites. While a few tweaks will always be necessary depending upon wind, waves and currents, the preliminary work with the Sentry crew will speed up the transitions between Sentry dives.

Amanda wearing her PFD during the fire drill.

Amanda wearing her PFD during the fire drill.

We also took advantage of this time to run through our safety drills. While we mustered at our designated location in case of fire, the ship’s crew donned their gear and brought out the equipment needed as if this had been a real event. We also had to try on our immersions suits, which we would wear if we needed to abandon ship.

Robert demonstrating his immersion suit!

Robert demonstrating his immersion suit!


Can you figure out what this is? And due to the forecasted bad seas it is staying right where it is for another day….

August 27, 2017


Exploring Deepwater Canyons off the coast of North Carolina

August 25, 2017

NOAA Ship Pisces underway. NOAA photo.

On Monday, August 28, the NOAA Ship Pisces will embark on a new mission to explore the deepwater canyons and slope habitats off the coast of North Carolina. Using an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) a team of scientists will be surveying canyons and slope areas including sampling for environmental factors such as salinity, turbidity and depth. Using this information, they plan to develop a characterization of the benthic habitats and to identify areas of coral presence. They will also be conducting multi-beam mapping in areas where data are missing or incomplete. The project includes assessing geological features and characterizing canyon morphology. Additionally, they will be using a CTD (Conductivity, Temperature and Depth) and monocore device to gather more data about specific locations.

Martha Nizinski

Dr. Martha Nizinski

This effort is being led by Dr. Martha Nizinski, a zoologist at the NOAA/NMFS Office of Science and Technology, National Systematics Lab, in Washington, D.C. She is the chief scientist on this mission, hoping to discover new deepsea coral locations and add to our knowledge of deepsea coral distributions and diversity in canyons along the East Coast of the US. Dr. Nizinski has assembled a strong team to assist during this mission.





Dr. Amanda Demopolous

Amanda Demopoulos is a Research Benthic Ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) at the Wetland and Aquatic Research Center in Gainesville, Florida.  She will be examining the community structure and function of animals found on the seafloor or in the mud (a.k.a. sediment) in the study areas. On this cruise, she will be sampling the sediments using a corer attached to the CTD rosette in order to understand the benthic communities found within canyon mud. She also will filter seawater samples from the Niskin collection bottles for complementary food web studies. She will also assist the chief scientist, Martha Nizinski, with site selection. She is very excited to review the data and images collected on the AUV Sentry dives because they will provide the first glimpse of these unexplored deep-sea habitats.



Robert Figueroa-Downing

Robert Figueroa-Downing is a recent Master’s graduate of The University of Texas Rio-Grande Valley. On board the R/V Pisces, he will be acting as a research assistant/intern. He will aid in the ship-board multi-beam imaging, AUV deployment, and core retrieval/processing. He anticipates being involved in all projects that require an extra set of hands. Robert’s goals for the cruise are to learn about the various projects/technologies that are going to be used.  He wants to develop contacts and a better understanding of what it means to work for NOAA. He is excited to meet everyone, learn about their projects, and help in any way he can.

Liz snorkeling

Liz Baird

Liz Baird is Chief of School and Lifelong Education at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, NC. She has been involved in providing outreach and education on deepwater coral habitats during research missions since 2001 and is looking forward to exploring canyons close to home. She is excited to continue to work with several previous collaborators and hopes that the weather will cooperate and provide smooth seas for the mission.

Pisces map of target locations.

Mike Skowronski  is a research engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts,  and will be doing AUV Sentry support and operations. He has served as a sub pilot on Alvin and has had more than 22 dives in that vehicle.

This group, along with other explorers, is ready to head out to the canyons. Look for daily updates and feel free to send along any questions you might have.

Have Kids? Need Nature!

June 15, 2017

Child looking at snail. Photo: Juan A. Pons.

Mother’s Day got me thinking … about all the things mothers (and other care-givers) do for their children and about the even longer list of all the things we’re told we should be doing.  While that list of things we should or shouldn’t do is incredibly long, it’s our job to figure out what matters the most and how to make it happen.

As an early childhood environmental educator, a top priority of mine is getting my child outside as much as possible.  I also realize that some parents don’t have the experiences or resources I do for making this happen.  The goal of this and future blog posts will be to share my experiences, both successful, and not, so that we can learn together about outdoor parenting.

If you haven’t already read about the benefits of children spending time outside, here are a few links to get you started:

We really need a movement to “Take a Child Outside Every Day,” or at least to “Take a Child Outside Once a Week,” however the logistics of coordinating partners worldwide for daily or weekly activities are daunting.  With this in mind, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences focuses on getting parents, from September 24-30 annually, to simply “Take a Child Outside.” By facilitating outdoor time for one week, we hope to give adults ideas, resources, and support to initiate ongoing outdoor experiences.  I’ll be extending the Museum’s support by sharing my experiences and ideas as well as answering your questions year-round.  Look for future posts from me and feel free to contact me with your concerns and questions via

Your partner in getting kids outside,

Beth Cranford

Beth is often found at the Museum teaching with live animals or reading stories in the Windows on the World theater.  While she has experience teaching all ages both inside and outdoors, she is new to parenting and learning new things every day from her son.

Secrets of the Swamp Junior Curator Trip

May 2, 2017

During spring break 2017, eight Junior Curators from NCMNS, along with leaders Melissa and Megan, embarked on a four-day trip into the swamps of the Roanoke River. After departing on Sunday, we canoed about 6 miles to the first platform, Barred Owl Roost, which was situated in the middle of a stunning cypress swamp with no land to be found anywhere near the platform. We managed to catch a crappie fish that first day, and also reflected on the beautiful scenery by writing poems inspired by our favorite parts of the swamp. That night, we discovered that Barred Owl Roost was aptly named, because we could hardly sleep for the raucous calls of the barred owls (or swamp monkeys, as we affectionately called them) all around the platform.

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Our camp on Barred Owl Roost platform.

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Robbie and his crappie!

The next day, we headed out early and took on our longest day of paddling, almost 10 miles. We added yet more snakes to the fifteen we had already spotted on a single beaver dam the day before. We also saw a beaver, as well as a river otter and its pups. Once we arrived at Cow Creek Platform, our next stop, we went swimming in the freezing water, and then dried ourselves out in the hot sun. Another highlight of the whole trip was the night paddles we went on, where we would simply drift on the river and look at the stars and listen to the owls. It was those times where some of us felt the closest to nature.

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Paddling upstream!

On day three, we got the opportunity to explore some side creeks since the next platform we were paddling to, Cypress Cathedral, was only a couple miles away. Although the winds battled against us, we did manage to paddle far enough upstream that we caught sight of a barred owl hunting crayfish, and we also spotted a cottonmouth. Then, that evening, after another swim and a dinner of ramen stir-fry, we were heading out to go on a night paddle when we noticed a strange, dark shape in the water near the dock. When we looked closer, we realized it was a rare two-toed amphiuma (Amphiuma means)! Catching the amphiuma was a feat due to its slippery, slimy skin coating, but we managed it, and it was definitely a highlight of our trip. That night was a great night for wildlife, as we also caught bowfin (Amia calva), which is another exciting find!


Two-toed amphiuma

On day four, when we headed back to civilization, we were all so sad that the trip was over, but were also really looking forward to finally showering. There’s nowhere like the swamps of the Roanoke River, and many of us are looking forward to returning soon!

~by Olivia Slack, Junior Curator

Topsail Turtles: Tracks in the Sand

September 8, 2016

Every summer, hundreds of baby sea turtles hatch on Topsail Island and make their way to the ocean by the light of the moon. They face many threats: ghost crabs prey on them; competing light from houses, hotels, and other buildings that line the beach misdirect them, and sharks and other predators await them in the vast ocean. But a few survive until adulthood, and every year for millions of years, female turtles have returned to their natal beaches to nest, and start the cycle again.

The Museum’s Head of Outreach, Jerry Reynolds, leads a trip to the beach each August, giving participants the rare chance to witness a hatching. Loggerhead sea turtles are the primary species to nest on Topsail, and their hatchlings usually emerge at night, in the relative safety of darkness. Some years, participants have huddled on the beach in the cold and rain for hours, “nest-sitting” a nest that didn’t hatch that night. Some years, they arrived at a nest only to find that it had already hatched. But some years, they get lucky.

August 14, 2016

The first night of our trip I got to see 20 baby loggerhead sea turtles make their way down to the ocean.

First, the group attended a loggerhead nest analysis at the other end of the island. A nest analysis is performed three days after the nest hatches, and includes collection and counting of eggs and eggshell fragments, any babies that didn’t make it, and any surviving hatchlings that didn’t make it out of the nest. They recovered a lot of eggshell fragments and a number of unhatched eggs, but all of the ones that did hatch made it out of the nest.

A Topsail Turtle Project volunteer displays one of the unhatched loggerhead eggs. Photo: Karen Swain/NCMNS.

A Topsail Turtle Project volunteer displays one of the unhatched loggerhead eggs. Photo: Karen Swain/NCMNS.

As soon as the analysis was done we drove to the north end of the island, where our assigned loggerhead nest awaited. We all set up our beach chairs and settled in for what we knew could be a long night. But we didn’t have very long to wait before we heard the stage-whispered exclamation from the person nearest the nest: the first hatchling had emerged and was headed towards the water!

Volunteers from the Topsail Island Turtle Patrol build sand “runways” for the hatchlings of each nest, mostly so the many people who turn up to watch the hatchings don’t accidentally step on the turtles. However, because 1) the runways are built ahead of time, 2) there’s no way to predict quite when a nest will hatch, and 3) the moon moves, the direction of a runway may not match the direction of the moon when the turtles hatch. And unfortunately, our runway  wasn’t lined up with the moon.

We helped keep the parade of baby turtles on the runway when they strayed in the direction of the moon, using our arms to block them from coming over the top of our side of the ramp. The last turtle tried so hard to go toward the moon that it almost climbed over my arm, turned around & started going the wrong way, and then finally back to scrabble against my arm. One of the volunteers came over and set the little creature back in the center of the runway, and off it went, down toward the next person and out of my sight toward the ocean. They say maybe one hatchling in a thousand makes it to the Sargasso Sea. That little one tried so hard, I really hope it makes it.

Elated, we moved to a new nest that our Turtle Patrol contact thought was likely to hatch soon. The new nest had the tell-tale depression at the top that indicated movement below; underneath the sand, the turtles were coming out of their eggs. But despite waiting and watching until about 3:30am, no turtles emerged.

August 15, 2016

Today we toured the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. After a brief orientation, we got a look at the medical and husbandry areas, met a tiny loggerhead hatchling, and quietly filed by as a newly rescued turtle received treatment for its injuries.

At last! A photo of a loggerhead hatchling, albeit one we didn't see hatch. Photo: Karen Swain/NCMNS.

At last! A photo of a loggerhead hatchling, albeit one we didn’t see hatch. Photo: Karen Swain/NCMNS.

We toured the “Sea Turtle Bay,” the huge area where most of the turtles are housed in large tanks while being rehabilitated. Most of the turtles are loggerheads, but there were a handful of green sea turtles and just one of the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, a blind permanent resident of the hospital named “Lennie.”

Sea Turtle Bay at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. Photo: Karen Swain/NCMNS.

Sea Turtle Bay at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. Photo: Karen Swain/NCMNS.

Finally, the Topsail Island Turtle Project’s founder, Jean Beasley, kindly took the time to speak to the group, and gave an impassioned plea for conservation.

Topsail Turtle Project founder Jean Beasley speaking to the group. Photo: Karen Swain/NCMNS.

Topsail Turtle Project founder Jean Beasley speaking to the group. Photo: Karen Swain/NCMNS.

Tonight we were incredibly lucky to watch a nest analysis of a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, a species that normally only nests at one location in Mexico, and sometimes in Texas. The analysis was attended by none other than Jean Beasley!

Jean Beasley came out to the beach for the Kemp's ridley nest analysis, so we knew it was a special occasion! Photo: Karen Swain/NCMNS.

Jean Beasley came out to the beach for the Kemp’s ridley nest analysis, so we knew it was a special occasion! Photo: Karen Swain/NCMNS.

There were several eggs from the nest that didn’t hatch, and a few hatchlings that didn’t survive, but there was one hatchling in this nest that was recovered alive.

Typically, if a hatchling looks viable, it will be released at sunset. I’m not sure what happened with that hatchling, but we were able to take some photos of the nest analysis, including the baby. The really good news is that they thought 75 hatchlings had made it out of the nest, and hopefully, to the ocean.

The Kemp's ridley hatchling retrieved during the nest analysis. Photo: Karen Swain/NCMNS.

The Kemp’s ridley hatchling retrieved during the nest analysis. Photo: Karen Swain/NCMNS.

After the nest analysis we drove 20 miles north to the other end of the island to sit with the same nest we had stayed with last night. This time, we’d barely parked the vans on the side of the road when Jerry got a text from the nest coordinator telling him that the hatchlings had their noses up, poking through the sand hole at the top of the nest. We scrambled with what we could instantly grab and jogged to the nest site. Some of the hatchlings were already in the ocean, and a line of baby turtles was trundling down the turtle “highway.” We watched until all of the babies were safely to the water — a magical sight.

Because of the prohibition on any kind of artificial lights while the hatchlings are on the beach, photos can only be taken during a hatching with an infrared camera, which nobody on this trip had, but we did get some photos of the turtle tracks.

Several people from the group took photos of the hatchling tracks. Photo: Andy Kauffman/NCMNS.

Several people from the group took photos of the hatchling tracks. Photo: Andy Kauffman/NCMNS.

We went back to the vans and moved a mile or so north to another nest that our contact thought might hatch. We set up our beach chairs by the runway and were settling in for the night when the rumor circulated that an adult female had come ashore to lay her eggs, but had possibly been spooked by something and went back in the ocean. Often if this happens, the mother sea turtle will come ashore and try again somewhere close by.

It wasn’t long before we heard the news — the turtle had indeed come ashore only a little distance to the north! We ran ahead to find her. The first thing I saw was a dark shape against the dune, but fellow trip participant Dan Harvey trained his birding scope on her, and we watched from afar as she started to lay her clutch. A few minutes later, Jerry returned from a run to the van with his night scope, which made the scene appear as if illuminated by bright green light.

The mother turtle laid her eggs quickly, and the group took turns watching through the scopes as she covered them up with her flippers. Nesting often takes two or three hours, but before we knew it, she was headed back down to the surf. We followed her at a distance, and came gradually closer to where we could see her. She was enormous — apparently an older, more experienced mother turtle. The nest coordinator shone a red light on her, checking for tags. She didn’t have any, but the light was enough for a couple people to take photos, and Curator of the Museum’s Living Conservatory, Andy Kauffman, got a short video of the turtle making her way through the waves to deeper water. Although rough and indistinct, the photos and video commemorate the coda of an extraordinary trip.

The mother sea turtle crawling back to the ocean. Photo: Andy Kauffman/NCMNS.

The mother sea turtle crawling back to the ocean. Photo: Andy Kauffman/NCMNS.

I have been trying to go on the Topsail Turtle Trip for almost a decade, but something always prevented me from going. This year I finally got to go, and it was more than worth the wait. We couldn’t have been luckier — it was epic.

It was the least I could do…

March 7, 2016

The Least Brook Lamprey, that is!

This is a fish story – perhaps unlike any other fish story that you have heard and I’m sure that you have heard some doozies.  This story starts in March of 2005, soon after my family moved into our neighborhood in rural Johnston County.  Chris, my then 14-year-old son, saw some long skinny fish in the stream behind our house and asked what they were.  I dipped one up with a net and expected it to be an American Eel (Anguilla rostrata).  I immediately knew it was not and recognized the lamprey-like appearance.  A quick phone conversation with Wayne Starnes, then Curator of Fishes at the Museum, revealed that it was the Least Brook Lamprey (Lampetra aepyptera).  This is a small (4-7 inches), non-migratory and non-parasitic freshwater lamprey unlike the Sea Lamprey you may be more familiar with.  There were so few records of them from the state that Wayne was glad to get a few specimens for the research collection.


Least Brook Lamprey (Lampetra aepyptera) Photo by Scott Smith

Least Brook Lamprey (Lampetra aepyptera) Photo by Scott Smith


The stream where we found them is so small that you can step across it in most places.  It is a clear running stream with an average depth of only about 6 inches on a gravel and sand bed.  The stream originates in the mixed wooded area behind my house and is probably spring fed.  Most people would not give the stream a second thought and probably would lump it in the category of a “drainage ditch”.  But for the Least Brook Lamprey (and who knows what else) this little stream and others like it is their whole world.  They live here, feed here, reproduce here and die here!  So these little streams are not just special to them—they are essential.



The stream where lamprey spawn.


The Least Brook Lamprey belongs to the family Petromyzontidae, which includes about 20 species of freshwater brook lampreys plus the Sea Lamprey in North America.  The Least Brook Lamprey is one of three brook lampreys found in North Carolina.  In North Carolina it is only known from a few locations in the Neuse and Tar River basins.  The species may be more widespread in these two river systems, but they are very hard to detect except during their short spawning season.  The two-three week spawning season is the culmination of a very interesting life cycle.

These lampreys start in a larval fish form, called ammocoetes, hatched from the eggs produced during spawning.  As ammocoetes, the lampreys live in the stream sediment and filter feed on algae and other organic material.   The ammocoetes do not even have eyes in this form.  They live for 3 to 7 years in this stage (Fritz Rohde et. al. 1976) feeding in the stream bed and generally hidden from sight.  Only when the lampreys transform to the adult form and emerge to spawn do they become easy to see.  And what a show they put on!

The adult lampreys work in small groups (3-10 +) creating nest depressions in the sand and gravel substrate of the stream.  Working in shallow water with a steady current, they are almost always swimming upstream and using their sucker-like mouth to move rocks from the depression.  They also anchor to larger rocks and vigorously undulate their body churning sand and smaller rocks out of the depression.  They rest by anchoring to a rock, floating just under the stream surface.



Intervals of spawning occur the nest building activity.  The female anchors to a larger rock and then a male will attach with his mouth on top of the female’s head.  He then curls the posterior of his body around the female and both vigorously wriggle.  Eggs and sperm are being released at this time.  The sticky eggs fall and stick to the sand and gravel substrate.  Hatching is presumed to happen within a few days.  And thus the ammocoete phase of their life begins.

The adult lampreys do not feed at all and die soon after the spawning season.  Since the larval lampreys take at least several years to mature, it is presumed that each year’s group of spawning adults are from the brood of one or two year’s spawning a few years ago.  So it would be expected that the number of adults observed will vary from year to year based on reproductive effort in a previous year and on stream conditions in the intervening years before maturity that would have affected the growth and survival of the larval lampreys.

I began systematically documenting the lampreys spawning effort in 2015 by surveying the section of stream immediately behind my house every day during the two-three week spawning season.  In 2015, my highest daily count was 14 lampreys.  In 2016, my highest count was 43 lampreys.


Using a GoPro to document lamprey activity.

With the GoPro I was able to capture the spawning behaviors.

With the GoPro I was able to capture the spawning behaviors.


It is a short show, but it is a fascinating thing to watch when the lampreys are spawning.  Towards the end of the spawning season, the few remaining lampreys just hang out in or near the nest attached to a rock and limply swaying with the current as their life comes to an end.  It is a little sad, but this is the way of their life on earth.


The small streams that they need for their life on earth are also a dying “breed”.  These small clear running streams don’t fare too well with nearby construction of commercial and residential projects.  It would only take one faulty siltation fence or retention pond from a nearby construction project to fail resulting in the smothering of such a stream under a blanket of mud and silt.  The lampreys and all the other inhabitants of the stream would suffer greatly.

So relish those small streams.  Spend some time in them to discover the wonderful diversity of life they support.  And keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t suffer from any construction projects that might be nearby.  Once lost, it is hard to get them and all the life that once was there back.  The Least Brook Lamprey may not be the prettiest animal you will ever see.  But they certainly are one of the more interesting animals that live here.  Ensuring their continued survival in our world is the least that we can do!