The possibility of discovering a new species or revealing a geologic process is an exciting prospect for a graduate student on the way to a PhD.
The responsibility of dropping equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars over the side of a ship may be a bit daunting, to be sure, but it is vital for students to learn how to deploy and recover the equipment used to make discoveries.
So when the R/V Kilo Moana left the UH Marine Center on Feb. 12, a truly hands-on experience at sea began for a group of scientists in training.
“You can’t be afraid to try new things,” says first year PhD candidate Lee Shannon. “If it was easy, somebody would’ve done it already,” he adds, paraphrasing the words of Assistant Professor Jeffrey Drazen, chief scientist on the three-day cruise.
Advances in technology expand possibilities for deep-sea exploration, and being surrounded by an ocean makes Hawai‘i an ideal location for such research.
Drazen and fellow faculty members Erica Goetze and Brian Popp requested three days of ship time on the university’s state-of-the-art research vessel to expose their students to the pelagic environment and introduce them to techniques used to study it. Students from two graduate classes were on board, Drazen and Goetze’s oceanography class Ecology of Pelagic Marine Animals and Popp’s geology and geophysics class Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry.
UH Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology operates the R/V Kilo Moana, owned by the US Navy and built in 2002 to be operated by the university for research.
The Kilo Moana arrived in Honolulu in 2003. It is a general-purpose oceanographic research ship designed to operate in coastal and blue water areas. The unique SWATH hull form provides a comfortable, stable platform in high sea conditions.
At 186 feet in length, the design affords comfortable space, including lodging for 20 crew and 28 scientific personnel, laboratory areas, a computer lab and sizable operations area on the fantail of the ship. Most of the work carried out on the vessel is funded by the National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“Part of the agreement we have with the Navy is that we will invest state funds in the operation of the ship. That can be purchase of equipment, payment for maintenance or other operations,” says Alexander “Sandy” Shor, associate dean for research for SOEST. “It often includes UH use of the ship for student cruises, which is the underlying rationale and source of funds for the series of student cruises this past January and February.”
The cruises are an invaluable learning tool, providing hands-on education as well as the opportunity to work with others to gather data and samples that each may use for independent or joint projects. It is an experience that seasoned oceanographers may take for granted.
During the February cruise, the respirometer, a system to measure the pace of life in deep-sea fishes, was deployed for the very first time. Its job is to trap fishes and measure their rate of metabolism. “We did not catch a fish, but we learned a lot about the logistics of deploying and recovering it and worked out several bugs with the capture mechanism as well as a sensor issue,” says Drazen.
Understanding the nature of the marine environment on sensitive electronics gear is crucial if scientists are to work effectively with technicians and engineers to design and deploy equipment correctly.
Another routinely used piece of equipment is the baited camera system. “It’s a great way to assess diversity in the deep-sea without needing to use costly submarines or remotely operated vehicles,” says Drazen. A camera was deployed for approximately 24 hours. The flash failed to operate.
All the equipment was recovered, and students learned that experiments don’t always return the expected results. In this case, there was no time to re-deploy the camera, which would have been done on a longer cruise.
The baited trap is used to collect specimens seen with the camera to confirm their identity. A highlight of the student cruise was the capture of two specimens of a bright red, spiky king crab that has been seen repeatedly in photos but not positively identified.
The specimens have been sent to an expert. It is possible they are a new species. “We could not have hoped for better results,” enthuses Popp.
Shannon found it fascinating to be part of the team. “I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to photograph the specimens close up and contribute to the documentation and final identification down the road. The idea that I may have been the first in the world to take close up photos of this species is pretty amazing.”
It’s not all excitement. Data collection can be tedious—classifying and counting each individual tiny specimen and separating them for further preservation or analysis. “We spent hours hunched over pans and stared into stereoscopes with tweezers trying to identify those things,” he says.
“Many of the animals showed high evolutionary convergence—distantly related animals evolving to have similar body types—and it was very difficult to sort them correctly. Only after data is collected can a scientist’s job actually begin,” he continued.
While shipboard research isn’t new to graduate student Nicole Condon, working on an actual research vessel was. “I am used to 40-foot commercial fishing vessels, so the change of scenery was amazing and having so many resources, both tools and labs on the ship, made things run very smoothly.”
Popp says all the students enjoyed their shipboard experience. Sure they could write a paper by reviewing literature, he says. But using the analysis of samples they collected can empower students, giving them much more confidence in their abilities.
“They are not just reporting on the work of others. The students will make sense of the results they generate. It is an approach they, as scientists, can expect to do when they get out of school.”