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2008 Cordell Bank Mission
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Mission Blog: Sept. 22, 2009

Chelsea Lowes, Onboard Cruise Log Coordinator
Knauss Sea Grant Fellow, NOAA Ecosystem Research Program

Welcome aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster!

NOAA Ship Nancy Foster docked in Key West. (Image: NOAA CCFHR)
Yesterday scientists began arriving from all corners of the U.S., converging on Key West, Florida where the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster is docked. While some had more travel troubles than others (delayed and rerouted flights galore), whether it be by boat, plane or automobile (no trains to round out that rhyme unfortunately) everyone finally made it aboard. After a quick meeting to introduce everyone, discuss boat etiquette, and, most importantly, dinner plans, everyone headed out to taste the local flavor and take a quick stroll down the infamous Duval Street.

View from the stern deck as the Nancy Foster departs. (Image: NOAA CCFHR)
Up bright and early for breakfast! The scientists met briefly with our Operations Officer, Lieutenant Abigail Higgins, to discuss ship rules, drills, and safety tips.

We cast off the docklines at 9:30 a.m., waved to our fellow NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter and numerous cruise ships docked along the way out of the harbor, and off we went into the open ocean!

An eight-hour cruise meant plenty of time for preparatory meetings and safety drills. Chief Scientist John Burke covered the mission objectives and approaches during our orientation meeting, which was quickly followed by a fire drill - complete with fake smoke and a "victim". Next up was the abandon ship drill, which meant we had to don our immersion suits and waddle around on deck like bright orange Michelin men (and women)!

Goliath grouper. (Image: NOAA CCFHR)
We were also informed that one of the small boats was having mechanical trouble, so the scientists and crew had to work together to come up with an alternative plan for diving with two boats instead of three until the third can be repaired. The crew seems to think that the problem was fixable, so hopefully we'll only have to work with two boats for a short time!

Finally, we arrived at our first site and dispatched two dive teams right away. Amazingly, one of the teams almost immediately came across a curious goliath grouper, a species that can reach a maximum length of eight feet! Wow!

This image of benthic habitat includes colorful invertebrates. (Image: NOAA CCFHR)
This sighting is significant since, in the past, goliath groupers were overharvested to the extent that possession of the species is still prohibited. During the first survey of the Tortugas in 2000, no goliath groupers were observed; however, since the establishment of the Tortugas Ecological Reserve in 2001, numbers have been continually increasing. To see one on the first dive of this year's research cruise suggests the population continues to recover and supports the decision to set aside this large area (90 square nautical miles) to protect this critical coral reef ecosystem and the incredible biodiversity it supports. Dive teams also observed many other marine creatures, including a giant lobster (Caribbean spiny lobsters can grow to be 2 feet long!) as well as a plethora of coral.

We hope that the rest of the dives go as smoothly as today!

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