Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Life at Sea: Weather, Science, and Food.

Hi, my name is Derek Schwenkmeyer and I am a biology and statistics major from the University of California, Santa Barbara. I'm working at BIOS right now to study the ecogenotoxicology of copper in Bermuda as part of a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). 

For part of my project I went on a six-day oceanographic cruise on board the R/V Atlantic Explorer. Many of these cruises are used by people working on a program called BATS (Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study), which monitors temperature, salinity, chlorophyll content, nutrient levels, eddy patterns, etc. at different locations in the mid-Atlantic. Before getting on the ship, I knew another REU (Esra Mescioglu), Brandon Gibbs--who works with one of my mentors in the Trace-Metal Chemistry Lab, and my roommate James Munro, who is a math major from Cambridge modeling ocean currents with BATS. Side note about James- we got him to read the sorting hat song from Harry Potter with his lovely British accent in exchange for laundry quarters. I have it on tape.

Esra and I thoroughly enjoyed the safety drill, specifically the Gumby suits.
I needed to collect very clean seawater as a control for my REU project. I also helped collect dirt from the bottom of the ocean (5000 meters deep) for another project in the Trace-Metal Chemistry Lab.

In order to collect water from different depths in as little time as possible without any metal contamination, we sent down a Kevlar rope tied to open plastic bottles that could be triggered to close when struck from above. Each bottle was attached to a weight that would slide down the rope and trigger the next bottle, as well as release the next weight. It was very satisfying pulling the bottles up one-by-one and seeing that each had closed as expected.

Brandon and I in the middle of a Kevlar cast. 
The device we used to collect the dirt sample was designed for use in water about 50 meters deep, and is essentially just a spring trap that is supposed to slam shut when it hits dirt. Unfortunately, because of the incredibly high pressure of the deep ocean, the first two times we sent it out the device probably wasn’t moving with enough force to trigger the spring. On our third attempt, we strapped on about 300 lbs of dense weights to the sides of the scoop. To everyone’s surprise, the device was triggered and we managed to pull about one gram of dirt up from the bottom. I never thought I could be so happy to see a little mud!

Preparing to scoop up some dirt.

Did this cast collect any soil? A few seconds after this photo we found that the answer was no.
One thing I was really surprised about was the quality of the food. I don’t think I have ever had a week in which I’ve eaten as well as I did on that ship. The crew had tons of exotic sauces and spices and the best ingredients you can keep on a ship. We got to enjoy guacamole, sushi, fried lionfish, curry, and much more (all with my favorite condiment—Sriracha hot sauce). At sea your life pretty much revolves around weather, science, and food, so the great meals were much appreciated by everyone.

I've never seen a sunset like this on land.
While there was a lot of down time, a busy ship like this has casts going out 24 hours a day. That means having some 3am casts is pretty much expected. On average it took about three long naps for me to get all of my sleep in! Despite the odd hours, I really appreciated having the opportunity to work on board the AE. It was great to meet scientists doing fieldwork in oceanography and get firsthand view of an oceanographer’s lifestyle.

A successful cruise!
The REU program at BIOS is supported by the National Science Foundation's Division of Ocean Sciences under Grant No. 1262880.

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