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Making Waves: Episode 21 (March 23, 2009)

... NOAA Scientists are about to head out on a mission to learn more about coral reef ecoystems and fish habitats in the Caribbean.
...And NOS’ Education launched a new interactive game this week or kids that you just have to check out.

Those stories are coming up today on Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

Ocean service scientists are heading out to sea on the NOAA ship Nancy Foster. They’re going to the Caribbean for a two-week mission to study coral reef ecosystems and fish habitats off the coast of Vieques, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico.

This is the sixth year that NOAA has returned to survey U.S. territorial waters near Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands at the request of commonwealth agencies and local scientists in the region.

What’s so special about this region? Well, it’s home to sensitive coral reef habitats and marine life that we need to carefully manage and protect. But in order to manage these natural resources, we need to learn more about the sea floor and the creatures that live there. We have good shallow water sea floor maps for many areas of the U.S. parts of the Caribbean, but we don’t know much about the sea floor in deeper waters.

This upcoming mission will help to change that. Researchers from the Ocean Service’s Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment Biogeography Branch, part of the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, are deploying some high-tech tools to map the deeper waters near Puerto Rico. But they aren’t just mapping the bottom – they’re also mapping the marine life that lives there.

They’re going to use multibeam sonar to collect high-resolution ocean depth information, known as bathymetry, and to gather information about the hardness and roughness of the ocean floor. Multibeam sonar works by pulsing the sea bottom with a series of sound waves and recording the reflected echoes as the sound bounces back. And they’re also going to capture under¬water video imagery of sea-floor habitats using a remotely operated vehicle.

And this is the cool part. The scientists will then plot this sonar and video data on a sea-floor map, and then add in coral ecosystem and fish census data. Taken together, this will help researchers learn more about the relationships between species in the area and their natural habitats. In other words, they’re putting together a very sophisticated, detailed map that ties together physical and biological information for the area. The result is what scientists call a “habitat utilization model.” With these accurate maps, resource managers will have the information they need so they can make better decisions about how to protect these fragile areas.

This type of mapping, called benthic or bottom habitat mapping, is a key part of what’s known as ecosystem-based coral reef management. Traditionally, benthic habitat mapping in the U.S. Caribbean has involved technologies such as aerial photography and satellite imagery.

These technologies are useful for mapping the distribution and status of shallow-water coral reef ecosystems, their use is limited to the depths at which sea-floor features are visible in the imagery, which is about 30 meters, or 98 feet. But multibeam sonar and underwater vehicle scanning allows the scientists to go much deeper to map areas that we don’t know much about.

When the researchers put the shallow and deep-water maps together, they will get a nearly seamless habitat map from coastal shores all the way down to about 1,000 meters, or 3,280 feet.

This will provide a very detailed snapshot of what’s going on down: where the corals are, what’s living there, the places that certain species prefer, water quality at different depths, and more…All of this information will tell planners and managers many things… for example, how underwater areas are doing, how well marine protected areas are working, or if certain areas need to be more protected. The maps can also help managers figure out if some areas can be more open to fishing or other human uses, how well no-fishing zones are working, and where the ‘hot spots’ are – those special places with extra rich and diverse sea life.

To call it a map really doesn’t do it justice. If you want to learn more about the project, visit our Web site at From there, you can link to the main site for the research cruise. Here, you’ll be able to read daily activity logs from the scientists aboard the Nancy Foster, or view daily photos and videos from the research cruise. The cruise runs from March 23rd to April 3rd … and it’s sponsored by NOAA, the Caribbean Fishery Management Council, and the Coral Reef Conservation Program.

(Sound Clip from Waterlife)
“You can talk” (Valerie)
“My name is Oscar” (Oscar)
“I’m Valerie” (Valerie)
“I haven’t eaten since I’ve left home” (Oscar)
Left home? Why? (Valerie)
“Our home is dying. There’s no food and almost no life left at all. I need to find the oracle. She’s supposed to be very wise. Maybe she can help heal our estuary.” (Oscar)
“What’s an estuary?” (Valerie)
“And estuary is where rivers meet the sea. The fresh water from the rivers meets salt water from the ocean.” (Oscar)
“What happened to it?” (Valerie)

Well you can find out in the new ocean service education online game called Waterlife; Where the Rivers Meet the Sea. The new Flash-based game premiered this week after a year of development in a partnership with some very talented students with Montgomery College’s Computer Gaming and Simulation program in Maryland.
Waterlife provides science instruction for students at the fourth through seventh grade levels using a series of challenges and the collection of “knowledge power.”

Students join a young girl named Valerie and Oscar the sea otter – who you just heard in the clip a moment ago – and a clam named… well I’ll let him introduce himself: (Sound clip from the Claminator: “My name is Mussel von Oysterstein. But you may call me ‘The Claminator!”)

So, together, this group journeys to save an estuary on the west coast of the United States. Along the way, players learn about the factors that produce healthy estuaries and food webs and why estuaries are essential to both ocean life and to humans.
Players tackle trash clean up, remove obstructions in waterways, replant the habitat to bring back food webs, and battle pollution monsters to restore Oscar’s home. The game includes many links to resources and a comprehensive field guide that students refer to during the game to gain knowledge power.

The game also provides an opportunity to learn about our nation’s biologically rich and economically important estuaries and about NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserve System, a network of 27 estuarine areas established for long-term stewardship, research, and education.

WaterLife is part of a newly launched online “planet arcade” – Games @ NOAA – which is a portal to a variety of games and interactive activities that highlight the science and the activities of NOAA and NOAA’s partners. We’ll be sitting down with one of the key people behind Waterlife next month to talk more about Waterlife, and how gaming is being used more and more in education. The games portal is at


That’s all for this episode. If you have any questions about this week’s podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean, send us an email at

Let’s bring in the ocean....

This is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service. See you next week.