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Your Experience Aboard an Ecosystems Surveys Branch Cruise

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Welcome aboard. The staff within the Ecosystems Surveys Branch (ESB) of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center have prepared this website to assist you, the first-time sailor, in participating in scientific cruises aboard the research vessels NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow and RV Hugh R. Sharp. This should help to prepare you for what should prove to be an exciting and educational experience at sea. It is meant to answer most, if not all, questions you may have before and during your participation on the cruise. After your cruise if you have any information which you would like to add, please let us know. Just click on a title bar below to read the information contained.

map of Atlantic coast

The nation's first fisheries laboratory was established at Woods Hole in 1871 by the U.S. Fish Commission, the forerunner of today's NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, under the leadership of Spencer Fullerton Baird. This laboratory is today the headquarters and main laboratory of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC). The Ecosystems Surveys Branch who are responsible for the majority of the center’s cruises, are based at the lab.

From 1871, surveys of marine life in local waters have been conducted out of Woods Hole. In 1880, the lab’s first research vessel, RV Fish Hawk, was purchased by the U.S. Fish Commission beginning a long standing tradition of  research vessels that is continued today by the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow.

The Ecosystems Surveys Branch conducts surveys that provide consistent, unbiased estimates of relative abundance for many finfish and shellfish species in the Northeast region. The Bottom Trawl surveys have been conducted since 1963 and serve as the basis for some of the longest time series of standardized fishery-independent indices of relative abundance in the world. The scallop and clam surveys began in the late 1970s and the fisheries acoustic surveys in 1998.

As a volunteer on a survey, you will serve as fully-fledged member of a survey's scientific party. The Ecosystems Surveys Branch places great value on the participation of volunteers and they are integral to the conduct of our surveys and data collection processes.

The following is a brief description of the major surveys conducted by the Ecosystems Surveys Branch. When you receive your notice explaining which cruise types and dates are available, look at the following list to help you determine which survey may interest you.

Ongoing time series of standardized multi-species finfish surveys. Besides species abundance data, these surveys routinely collect biological data, such as maturity stages and food habits information. Scales and otoliths are collected for age and growth studies. There are multiple parts covering each of the following areas :

I. Cape Hatteras / Mid-Atlantic

II. Southern New England / Georges Bank

III. Georges Bank / Gulf of Maine

IV. Gulf of Maine

Bigelow ship deck

Cruises to determine the distribution and abundance of Atlantic surfclams and ocean quahogs. A chartered commercial vessel surveys a portion of the stock annually.

The back deck of the Delaware

An annual series of quantitative cruises to determine the distribution and abundance of scallops. There are three parts covering each of the following areas:

I. Mid-Atlantic Bight/Southern New England

II. Southern New England/Georges Bank

III. Georges Bank

Sharp back deck
Hab Cam deploying

The scallop survey also deploys the HabCam vehicle which photographs the sea floor and sessile organisms like scallops.

The primary objective of NEFSC fisheries acoustic surveys is to derive fisheries independent abundance estimates for selected Northwest Atlantic pelagic fish stocks. Species-specific abundance estimates are derived using the multifrequency EK500 echo-integration system. Survey design is typically an adaptive systematic survey with targeted midwater trawl and underwater video deployments to verify acoustic targets. Biological sample processing is completed on deck at each station. Omni-directional sonar data is also continuously collected along the cruise track to provide information on the spatial distributional patterns of fish. Fisheries acoustic surveys often allocate a few days for site-specific experiments to investigate diel variability in acoustic target strength relative to fish behavior or gear performance tests.

Deploying an instrument during the Acoustic Survey

NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow

Side view of Bigelow

Length - 63.6 meters (208.6 ft)

Beam - 15 meters (49.2 ft)

Draft - 6.2 meters (20.35 ft)

Gross Tonnage - 2,218 tons

Range - 12,000 nautical miles at 12 knots

Date Commissioned - July 16, 2007

RV Hugh R. Sharp

RV Hugh R Sharp

Length - 44.5 meters (146 ft)

Beam - 9.8 meters (32 ft)

Draft - 2.9 meters (9.5 ft)

Gross Tonnage - 495 tons

Range - 3,500 nautical miles at 7 knots

Date Commissioned - May 7, 2006

The NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow is operated by the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO) division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The chartered vessel, RV Hugh R. Sharp is owned and operated by the University of Delaware. The ships communicate with the Woods Hole lab via email and phone daily.

NOAA uses private or academically supported research vessels for specific studies. Information on these vessels will be provided by the Chief Scientist whenever appropriate.

FV E.S.S. Pursuit

E.S.S. Pursuit clam dredge

Length - 44.35 meters (145.5 ft)

Beam - 13.05 meters (43 ft)

Gross Tonnage - 183 tons

Year Built - 2002

The F/V E.S.S. Pursuit was chartered for the 2012, 2013, and 2014 clam surveys. In future years other vessels may be be chartered. Volunteers will receive information of other chartered vessels if this is the case.

The Bigelow is commanded by NOAA Corps officers and crewed by civilians. Crew members for the Bigelow number 23, with a scientific complement of 15. The Sharp is handled by 9 of the ship's crew with a scientific team of 13.

Most of the scientific party, including the Chief Scientist and Watch Chiefs, is made up of NOAA biologists who spend time at sea as part of their jobs. You and other volunteer scientists comprise the remainder. The Chief Scientist is responsible for the scientific operations (how and where sampling occurs). The chain of command then goes to the two Watch Chiefs whose responsibilities include, among many others, the smooth conduct of each watch and the collection of data. The Captain or Commanding Officer is responsible for safely operating and navigating the vessel. Out on deck, the winch operator is in charge of the deck crew and operation of all of the fishing gear and machinery.

Stateroom assignments are made to minimize traffic due to alternating watches (shifts). When you go on watch, you should take everything you will need with you. A backpack or other bag is something you may want to bring to carry books, an extra set of clothing, MP3 player, etc. You will not be allowed to enter your room while members of the opposite watch are sleeping. Keep in mind that when you are up, others are sleeping, so please keep noise in all passageways to a minimum. An often overlooked problem is noise resulting from items not securely stowed in drawers and closets - the ship's motion will cause loose objects to roll or bang around. Please stow your gear and personal items with this in mind.

Linens (sheets and a pillowcase, soap, towels and face cloths, pillows and blankets) are provided on all vessels. It should be noted that the pillows are feather. Because of allergies or personal preference, some people choose to bring their own pillows and/or blankets/sleeping bags/towels. There are removable rails that mount on the bunks for rough weather sleeping safety. One more hint: Flip flops make showers more comfortable.


Staterooms aboard the Bigelow accommodate two scientists with a common head (bathroom) and shower. Each stateroom is equipped with a computer and satellite TV. Sometimes scientists will share a stateroom with a member of the ship's crew.

HB Stateroom


Staterooms aboard the Sharp accommodate two or four scientists to a room. Heads (bathroom) and showers are shared. Sometimes scientists will share a stateroom with a member of the ship's crew.

Sharp stateroom

You'll be served breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. The meals aboard all vessels are excellent. In addition, snacks, fresh fruits, soups, sandwich fixings, and beverages (coffee, tea, juices, milk, cocoa) are available around the clock.

A few rules regarding the mess area and galley protocol:

  • Foul-weather gear should never be worn in the galley or mess area, not even for a quick cup of coffee.
  • Shirts and proper footwear must be worn at all times in mess area.
  • Caps, hats, swimsuits and tank tops should not be worn in mess area.
  • On all vessels, scientists are expected to clear their dishes and silverware from table after meals.
  • Silverware and plates used for sandwiches, snacks, etc. should not be removed from mess area.
  • Return all coffee and drink cups to the galley when finished.
  • Lingering in the mess area after eating is discourteous to those waiting to eat or to the stewards waiting to clean up.
The Bigelow mess area

Internet / Email

Using satellite communication aboard the Bigelow, you will be able to access your personal email accounts and the internet while at sea. Internet and email is available, but limited on the Sharp. There is no internet access or email on our clam survey charter vessels.


Unless we are close enough to shore to be within cell range, cell phones are obsolete. However, on the Bigelow, smart phones can be connected to the ship's public wifi network, though use of Skype and Facetime are prohibited.


Your family and friends may enjoy checking these websites while you're at sea.

The Bigelow website is updated during the cruise with photos. The website also features an interactive display of the ship's labs, rooms and spaces that is worth checking out.

This website shows the current track for all NOAA vessels.

A website for the Sharp includes an interactive, online tour of the ship.

This website from the University of Delaware shows the survey track of the Sharp.

Ship-to-shore communication is available via cellular or satellite phone. Important messages may be forwarded through Woods Hole during business hours via Robert Johnston, ESB Branch Chief (508) 495-2261 or the Port Office (508) 495-2236. Other methods of contacting the ship in an emergency can be established with the Cruise Staffing Coordinator during correspondence prior to sailing.

Individual ship's rules vary; they are usually addressed during a brief meeting once the vessel is underway or posted in a prominent location. The ships prohibit gambling, alcohol, use of illegal drugs, and sexual liaison. Open-toed shoes are prohibited outside of staterooms, you must wear sturdy footwear.

All vessels conduct emergency drills once a week. You must report to your life-boat or fire station (the location is posted on billets in the passageways) wearing a hat, long-sleeved shirt, your life jacket, and carrying your survival suit. All cruise participants will be expected to try on their survival suits during a drill.

Schedules for vessels vary and you will be contacted with the details of sailing day.

All scientific personnel required to be on board one hour prior to sailing. Once you have arrived you may be asked to help load some of the scientific equipment or lend a hand in the preparation for departure. It should be noted that ships are complex and require a lot of equipment and instruments to operate safely and efficiently. Weather can also affect the ship's departure. Therefore, schedules can be difficult to meet exactly; one should BE PREPARED FOR DELAYS and possible schedule changes, as they are not uncommon.

The scientific work schedule consists of two twelve-hour shifts or "watches" conducted around the clock seven days a week. For cruises on the Bigelow and the Sharp, the "day" watch works from noon to midnight; the "night" watch is on duty from midnight to noon. Sleeping scientists are issued wake-up calls one hour before you are required to be on deck ready to begin work. It is expected and appreciated that you show up on deck ten minutes prior to your official starting time.

The work on deck will vary depending on the mission of your particular cruise. The work routine will be outlined at the pre-cruise meeting. Demonstrations of our electronic data collection system known as FSCS and when appropriate a fish identification workshop will held once underway.

There is a volunteer presentation available on the Ecosystems Surveys Branch website that covers work on deck in great detail. Also, we ask that all first-time sailors familiarize themselves with FSCS, our electronic data collection system, this is covered in the presentation under "The Computer System Operations".

It may take a while for first-timers to gain familiarity with fish identifications or other assignments. This is expected by the experienced staff, so first-timers should not be overly concerned. Don't be afraid to ask questions of your Watch Chief or the other watch members regarding procedures or fish identification. The motion of the ship during rough weather can make work on deck hazardous - work carefully. Ensure your wear a life jacket and hard hat whenever you are on deck and gear is being deployed.

Scientists working in the HB fish lab

With little exception on Bigelow and Sharp cruises, most of the twelve-hour watch is spent working on your feet. Past volunteers have commented that the work can be fairly intense and strenuous. There will be some "steaming" time between stations, and a chance for the scientists to grab a coffee and a few minutes off their feet. Occasionally, weather delays or long steams will allow for more down time.

In the event of extreme weather (high winds, large seas, hurricane) the ship will either come into the nearest port or jog (ride bow into the seas) until the seas calm down. The Captain makes this decision based on conditions, expected duration of the event and proximity of land in order to ensure the safety of personnel and the ship.

Off-watch time is your own to relax and enjoy your time at sea and your fellow ship mates. People read, play cards/board games, write, exercise, knit, sleep, draw, watch TV/movies or do their laundry. The Bigelow has a separate workout room, complete with an elliptical, weights, stationary bike, a head, and shower. All ships have satellite TV and a selection of movies available. If you're lucky, these may include brand new releases.

On the steam back to port, all lab areas used by the scientific crew must be thoroughly cleaned. Expect to be involved with some intensive cleaning of two weeks worth of fish gunk. Please note: Participants on the last leg of a survey on the Bigelow can expect at least six hours of cleaning. Foul-weather gear is also usually washed at this time. Staterooms and heads must be cleaned and will be inspected by the Chief Scientist and a ship's officer. Upon docking, scientists are dismissed after all the necessary scientific samples and survey equipment have been off-loaded and stored.

Regardless of your past experience at sea, we ask that ALL participants bring some type of preventive medication to prevent seasickness.

One of the least pleasant aspects of going to sea is the possibility of seasickness. An individual's susceptibility to seasickness is highly variable. If you've experienced motion sickness in cars, planes, or amusement park rides, you may experience seasickness during the cruise. Regardless, most people feel some level of illness or discomfort on the first days of the cruise. The irregular ship motion and indoor environment on the Bigelow can lead to seasickness for even the most seasoned sailor.

Seasickness is a result of a conflict in the inner ear (where the human balance mechanism resides) caused by the erratic motion of the ship through the water. Inside the cabin of a rocking boat, for example, the inner ear detects changes in linear and angular acceleration as the body bobs with the boat. But since the cabin moves with the passenger, the eyes register a relatively stable scene. Agitated by this perceptual incongruity, the brain responds with a cascade of stress-related hormones that can ultimately lead to nausea and vomiting.

The Delaware II in high seas

The effects of seasickness can be magnified by strong smells (like diesel fumes or fish, which are part of daily life at sea). It usually occurs in the first 12-24 hours after sailing, and dissipates when the body becomes acclimated to the ship's motion (getting one's "sea-legs"). Rarely does anyone stay ill beyond the first couple of days at sea, regardless of sea state. There are several over-the-counter medications available to prevent or minimize motion sickness. These are usually taken about an hour before sailing and as needed at sea; you should of course follow the instructions for the particular medication you are taking. All of these medications tend to dehydrate the body, so fluid intake is important.

If you should get seasick, take comfort in the fact that recovery is only a matter of time, and the survival rate is 100%. Each ship has a trained medical officer who can treat severe cases of sea-sickness. However, all that is usually required for a complete recovery is some sensible eating/drinking and some patience. Here are a few tips and considerations regarding seasickness:

  • Vomiting offers relief. Make an effort to continue eating items like crackers, dry toast, dry cereal, etc. (avoid anything greasy, sweet, or hard to digest). Keeping something in your stomach suppresses nausea, or, if vomiting, eliminates painful "dry heaves". Antacid tablets help some people.
  • Maintain fluids. Seasickness and related medications cause dehydration and headaches. Try to drink juices low in acidity, clear soups, or water, and stay away from milk or coffee.
  • Keep working. Most people find that being busy keeps their minds off their temporary discomfort. Anyway, you won't be allowed to stay in your bunk during your watch.
  • Carry a plastic bag. This simple trick allows some peace of mind and eliminates some of the panic of getting sick. Do not vomit in sinks or trash cans.
  • If you need to go outside for fresh air, make sure someone knows. For your safety, it is extremely important, if outside, to be in a safe location. In bad weather, being alone on deck can be very dangerous.
  • Above all, don't be embarrassed or discouraged. If you get sick, chances are that others are sick too. No one, including fishermen, ship's officers or scientists, is immune to seasickness.

Getting a good night's sleep is important to alleviating stress at sea. These tips will help.

  • Use ear plugs or eye shades to eliminate ship's noise and daytime light levels as sleep-robbing stimuli.
  • In rough seas, use your life preserver to "wedge" yourself against your bunk rail to avoid being tossed around.
  • Exercise to dissipate tension and relax muscles, but not immediately before retiring.
  • Pay attention to your diet; proteins (meats, fish, eggs, etc.) are harder to digest and should not be eaten prior to sleep. Carbohydrates (spaghetti, pancakes, oatmeal, etc.) can be more easily digested while sleeping, and make a better pre-sleep meal.

Although the benefits of a well-balanced, nutritious diet and regular exercise are well known, it was suggested that people refrain from initiating weight-loss diets or exercise programs at sea (maintenance of established programs is encouraged).

Bring treats from home (e.g. soda, candy, or gum) along to minimize the sense of deprivation of creature comforts that may occur.

Often stress at sea centers around human relations. Two or three weeks at sea working intensely with a small group of people under difficult conditions can often lead to conflict and tension. Communication is often the solution; the Chief Scientist and Watch Chiefs are there to assist and referee. Talk things out rather than letting them fester inside. A final consideration regarding stress at sea: as with seasickness, stressful situations are temporary and are a part of life at sea. Many people find that dealing with and overcoming stress is a stimulating and rewarding part of their sea-going experience.

Foul-weather gear or rain gear (jacket, bib-overalls and boots) is provided, as are gloves and glove liners. When providing your size, keep in mind that you will have to fit heavy clothing or two pairs of socks under your foul weather gear for warmth during cold weather. The boot sizing varies according to manufacturer. It's always better to go with a size larger if uncertain.

As far as personal clothing is concerned, old or used work clothes should be worn - the work can get messy. The amount of clothing worn will depend upon the season, but temperatures over the open water are usually much cooler than on land, and nights are cooler still. No matter what the season, its best to wear layers. That way you are prepared for a wide range of temperatures. In addition, the wind is always blowing, anything from a light breeze to a real blow. Sweatshirts, Polartec jackets, down vests, wool hats or beanies, baseball caps in summer, thermal underwear and warm socks are common dress items.

Summer cruises tend to be cooler than days on land, but there can also be very hot days depending on the wind and latitude of your cruise. Bear in mind that you will often be working in the sun for hours at a time in the summer, so bring sun block, a hat and sunglasses.

A lot of time is spent climbing in and out of your boots. Slip-on (versus tie) shoes will save you time and energy. For safety reasons, open toed are not to be worn aboard the vessel except in your stateroom. This includes clogs, Crocs, flip-flops or any other variation of open toed shoe.

Hats (wool or baseball) and a long-sleeved shirt must be worn during ship emergency drills.

Each ship has laundry facilities and detergent is provided. Being able to do laundry may help you decide how much clothing to pack. The exception to this is for cruises on the Sharp, where laundry may be limited to one load per week.

For stowing purposes, duffel bags are preferred over bulky suitcases.

Salt water, sun, and wind combine to create a harsh and drying environment for human skin and hair. Your skin, hands in particular, can become drier than you would expect. Skin lotion, lip balm and hair conditioner should find their way into the sea-bags of those who are sensitive to the elements. On the southern cruises during warm weather, insect repellent is something handy to have. If you are taking any sort of medication or have any medical condition, you should inform the medical officer upon sailing. Be sure to bring along an adequate supply of your medication and/or pain reliever.

Don't forget your toothbrush.

  • Seasickness preventive medication
  • Wool cap and/or baseball cap
  • T-shirts, socks, underwear: enough for 4 to 6 days on a bottom trawl/clam survey (heavier socks in cooler months), enough for 5-7 days on a scallop survey
  • Hooded sweatshirt
  • Sweatshirts: 2 or 3
  • Polartec, down vest or similar jacket
  • Thermal underwear for cooler months
  • Long pants: 2 to 3
  • Shorts in warm weather: 2 to 3 (3 to 4 on scallop)
  • Backpack or small bag
  • Sunglasses
  • Sun block
  • Insect repellent for summer
  • Lip balm
  • Pain reliever
  • Medication (adequate supply)
  • Cold remedy (cough syrup, drops)
  • Closed-toed shoes or sneakers (slip-on types are popular and convenient)
  • Two toothbrushes, toothpaste, body wash (a good scrubbing kind is nice), shampoo, conditioner, deodorant or two
  • Brush/comb
  • Shaving/personal cosmetics
  • Nail clippers/tweezers
  • Headlamp or small flashlight
  • Extra set of eyeglasses or contacts

The following items are optional:

  • Cell phone charger
  • Body lotion
  • Treats and comfort food
  • Coffee mug with a lid
  • Flip flops for shower
  • Books, DVDs, board games, magazines, iPod and charger
  • Vitamins
  • In-soles for boots
  • Camera
  • Binoculars
  • Ear plugs and eye shades can be helpful for sleeping
  • Pillow
  • Workout clothes
  • PJs
  • Hair dryer

"It is a great experience for sailors with a scientific interest in fisheries."
Spring bottom trawl volunteer

"Personally, I don't think I am a fisheries person. I am not the best at cutting and throwing the fish around. I understand that's the gist of what you are doing and studying, its just a personal thing."
Spring bottom trawl volunteer

"It takes a while to de-sensitize yourself to the welfare of the study organisms as killing the animals is inevitable for the survey."
Spring bottom trawl volunteer

"I had a wonderful experience even if I had to dig through 200 piles of ocean muck to find scallops, skates, goosefish and seastars".
Scallop volunteer

"…I would describe how arduous the work is. I was not fully prepared for how exhausted I would be".
Scallop volunteer

"I learnt the hard way that I should have taken seasickness tablets before leaving the dock, even though I had been on plenty of boats before the ride of your ships is different."
Fall bottom trawl volunteer

"Suggest finding a way to suspend the body mid-air during rough weather."
Spring bottom trawl volunteer

"The cruise was delayed multiple times, even though these were unavoidable due to weather, these were boring."
Spring bottom trawl volunteer

"Clam survey is a little monotonous, but that is what it is."
Clam volunteer

"The physical work was pretty tough. Not undoable [sic] - but strenuous."
Clam volunteer

"Bring lots of layered clothing. Participate in off-shift activities. Eat your veggies."
Fall bottom trawl volunteer

"Seasickness is never fun, but a part of ocean life. There again the website helped me prepare for that one. One of the scientists got me some crackers and water until it passed. There is nothing more to do than take seasickness pills before leaving the dock and hope for the best."
Fall bottom trawl volunteer

"I had worries that as volunteers, we will get small, maybe unnecessary jobs....but that was not the case at all. We were actually doing the work. Awesome!"
Fall bottom trawl volunteer

We have created a list of commonly used nautical and fishing terms for first-timers aboard our survey.

There are so many beautiful things to see: sharks, dolphins, whales, sunsets, etc. You might want to bring binoculars and your camera. If you wish to donate any photos to our collection, we would be glad to accept them. Please email your photos to:

Silky Shark

We hope that this has helped you prepare logistically and mentally for your adventure at sea. If you have additional questions, feel free to contact us here in the Ecosystems Surveys Branch at (508) 495-2000. We hope that your experience will be a positive and educational one. Safe sailing.

Please help us make this a better manual by contributing your comments or suggestions upon your return.

If you have any further questions or comments, or if you are interested in volunteering for a cruise, please contact:

Katherine Sowers
Northeast Fisheries Science Center
166 Water Street
Woods Hole, MA

Phone: 508-495-2342

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