A Sound Research Cruise on the R/V Seawolf

Stony Brook, NY, September 07, 2009 - We each found our way in the early morning darkness to make the 6 am meeting at the dock in Port Jefferson. We were set to board the R/V Seawolf, the research vessel of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. It was tied up and ready for a daylong research cruise. After first mate Katie Smith dropped off needed supplies and equipment and drove the cart back to the marina, everyone boarded and we were ready to cast off.

Captain David Bowman announced a few safety rules and gave us newbies a quick tour of the deck, the wet lab, the dry lab, the galley, the head and the wheelhouse. The Seawolf is 80 feet of efficiency and grace. And with ten people on board that morning, it was spacious enough to see what everyone was doing without getting in the way.

Everyone had an assigned job or multiple tasks to do…except for maybe Jennifer Smith, environmental reporter from Newsday (click here), and me—we were observing, recording, and trying to stay low key as researchers, students, and crew went about their business.

The purpose of this research cruise in Long Island Sound was to collect water samples from the area of the western Long Island Sound near Execution Rocks—a location that has historically been the site of low oxygen conditions known as hypoxia (click here for background information). The study is one of five two-year research projects funded in large part through the US EPA’s Long Island Sound Study with additional funds from the New York and Connecticut Sea Grant programs.

The research team of Dr. Gordon Taylor (click here) and Dr. Kamazima Lwiza (click here) along with their students has been looking at how the interplay between microscopic organisms’ metabolism in the water column and water mixing promote summertime hypoxia (click here for project description).

During the cruise westward, the researchers readied themselves for the sampling and processing of the samples. That meant preparing the bottles on the rosette sampler as well as the other smaller containment units to be used to collect, filter and process samples of water. They would contain a community of microorganisms ranging from the just barely visible phytoplankton to the much smaller bacteria. Dr. Taylor, a marine microbiologist and Sea Grant Scholar Liz Suter and undergrad Jake Kalda would be helping with those tasks.

Dr. Lwiza with assistance from crew member Keith Dunton and undergrad Justin Grimm-Greenblatt would be sounding the bottom and choose the exact location of the sampling which was done at depths of 2, 5, 10 and 22 meters off Execution Rocks. This location approaches the westernmost part of Long Island Sound, where the East River enters the Sound.

Up in the wheelhouse, Captain David Bowman showed us our heading, knowing that once we were at our sampling location, everyone would spring into action, leaving little time for conversation. As we approached, a few other research vessels came into view: the US EPA R/V Bold and the University of Connecticut research vessel.

By that time, too, the haze had cleared revealing a spectacular August morning, albeit very hot. Once in our optimal location, the rosette sampler was deployed—lowered carefully below. Its job is to fill the waiting sample bottles with seawater from chosen depths. In a few minutes, though, an alarm sound indicated the sampler was too close to the bottom. Sensors sound an alarm to prevent the sampler from getting into the sediment and wreaking havoc with the sensitive instrumentation package. After the adjustment was made by some team troubleshooting, the rosette sampler was lowered again and got everything needed.

A few minutes later, the sampler was back on deck and the team went to work getting the water samples out of the respective bottles, transferring samples of the whole plankton community into oxygen impermeable plastic bags, others into bottles to be filtered. The idea is to determine the respiration rate of different groups of microorganisms—the rate at which they use oxygen. Different sized microorganisms were separated through an elaborate sequence of filtrations propelled by pressurized gas. Different samples were kept in containers that shielded them from light and kept temperature constant.

All that activity, in the wet lab and in the dry lab, made everyone ready for lunch. First mate Katie Smith, beside trouble shooting the rosette sampler, painting the boom single-handedly (I watch her a few weeks before), is also right on top of the crew’s dietary needs and makes sure that there is food aplenty and freshly-made coffee to keep everyone energetic after those very early starts.

Just as we were finishing our sandwiches, it was time for Jen and me to disembark at Kings Point, the Merchant Marine Academy in western Nassau County. We were already pretty exhausted from the morning’s activities and knew that the rest of the group had more samples to take before the return voyage to Port Jefferson. The Seawolf would be zig-zagging its way back to port to check the currents using the ADCP—the acoustic doppler current profiler.

We were really grateful to have had such a great learning experience on board the Seawolf—where all the personnel were both competent and companionable. Many thanks to the captain, crew, researchers, students and to the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

Barbara Branca


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