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Diary of a Research Cruise

16 July 2015

As a professor of marine microbiology and geochemistry at UCSB, I teach students about the ocean; sometimes I even get to teach them about its chemistry and the microbes that drive that chemistry.

Normally this all occurs in the classroom, where PowerPoint slides must serve as seawater and my voice the endless howl of the wind that moves heat and water to structure the currents of the deep sea. But let’s face reality, a 75-minute lecture about deep ocean currents pales in comparison to experiencing those currents in person, while peering through the window of a submarine. As an oceanographer I have the opportunity to experience the ocean in this way and, beginning in 2004, I made a concerted effort to integrate my classroom teaching with my oceanographic research. With financial support and backing from the National Science Foundation, I developed a course sequence focused on oceanographic research questions in microbiology and chemistry, wherein two or more quarters of preparation culminate in a genuine oceanographic expedition, for which the students become active participants in cutting-edge oceanographic research.

From June 13 to 29, 2015, the class occupied the 274-foot research vessel Atlantis. With seven levels, Atlantis sleeps 60 people and has ample laboratory space for science. This was the fifth time the Atlantis had hosted the course, though the first time we had sailed from Florida, or to the Gulf of Mexico.

The name of our expedition was SEEPS ’15, which stands for Studies of the Evolution and Ecology of Petroleum Systems, 2015. Our scientific mission was to study chemical and biological factors that impact oil in the ocean, capitalizing on areas of oil seepage, where nature provides a consistent supply of oil from deep within the Earth to the ocean’s floor. We had ample technology to guide our mission: acoustic sensors to map target locations based on the presence of tiny methane bubbles; collection devices lowered directly from the Atlantis on miles-long cables; an autonomous vehicle (think underwater drone packed full of sensors and cameras) that flies reconnaissance missions over the sea floor; and the famed submarine Alvin that took a trio daily to the sea floor, often to more than a mile deep, and returned every evening with a basket full of samples. The work was fast-paced with operations planned 24/7, and with UCSB students fully engaged at every step. The diary attached here provides a snapshot of their experiences on the expedition, in their own words.

A Maddening Pursuit of Extra Salty Water

On my flight back to Southern California, the gentle turbulence was welcoming, reminding me of the swaying of the research vessel I called home for the previous two weeks.

Research at sea, however, is not as romantic as the rhythmic roll of crashing waves. The salty truth of oceanography is layered with days of highs and low, much rougher than the seas carrying a team of sleep-deprived researchers. As a second-time research trip participant, I considered myself a veteran buffered against the abrupt roller coaster of oceanic academia. However, after 12 days without collecting a single sample, I was... read more » http://www.news.ucsb.edu/diary-research-cruise/great-brine-hunt-2015

SEEPS on Refugio — My Summer Sandwich

Part I: May 20

After the oil spill in Refugio, I collected samples almost daily with other members of the Valentine Lab. Most days, sampling started in the morning and would typically last well into the evening, when we would begin the second half of our work: processing samples, recording supplemental notes, discussing our observations and plans and preparing equipment for the following day. The rigorous schedule was possible largely because of the cheerful and dedicated attitude of the group — we helped each other with the field and lab work and perhaps, just as importantly, the... read more » http://www.news.ucsb.edu/diary-research-cruise/seeps-regusion-my-summer-...

I Found Myself 3,000 Feet Below the Ocean’s Surface

The watch on my wrist violently flashed 4:30 a.m. when I found myself biking to Webb Hall, half asleep, and too tired to marvel at the blinking lights through Pardall Tunnel. Two weeks worth of clothing was strapped to my shoulders.

Two realizations struck me as I sleep-pedaled: one, that this is the first (and probably last) time I have ever been on campus in such a predicament, and two, that I was currently in transit to another, more exciting “first” – a two-week oceanographic research expedition in the Gulf of Mexico. The expedition came in the wake of a two-quarter-long class with the expedition... read more » http://www.news.ucsb.edu/diary-research-cruise/seeps-regusion-my-summer-...

Tiny Black Bubbles Rose from the Ocean Floor

Alvin Dive 4,796, Target Region Z

At 7 a.m. on the day of my dive, I couldn’t eat. I had the jitters. Watching pre-dive preparations — securing the science basket, attaching weights, rolling Alvin out of its hangar to the A-frame — helped calm me down. A little.

Soon enough, Veronika (senior scientist for the day) and I were crossing the yellow “do not cross” line and boarding the sub.

Inside the 6-foot diameter titanium sphere, everything glowed red. Jefferson, our pilot, greeted us and handed us pillowcases that we had packed the night before. After the hatch was sealed, we were lowered... read more » http://www.news.ucsb.edu/diary-research-cruise/tiny-black-bubbles-rose-o...

Today I Ate Lunch at the Bottom of the Ocean

Today I ate lunch at the bottom of the ocean.

I shared PB&J sandwiches with my postdoc mentor, Karin Lemkau, and a submarine pilot named Bruce. We sipped coffee from a thermos as we sat within the 6-foot diameter titanium sphere that is the life support mechanism of the Deep Submergence Vehicle named Alvin. Months of hard work and preparation paid off as we sat back and took in the wonders of the deep.

We left St. Petersburg, Florida, about a week ago on the research vessel Atlantis and set out into the Gulf of Mexico. We filled the 274-foot vessel with 15 scientists, excited undergraduate... read more » http://www.news.ucsb.edu/diary-research-cruise/today-i-ate-lunch-bottom-...

It Has Certainly Been an Exciting Summer

Hello from Florida! I am currently writing from a lab in St. Petersburg, Florida, where I am watching over and sampling some seawater incubations I started on our research cruise, SEEPS ’15, in the Gulf of Mexico. My research is focused on the marine microbial community response to oil and gas inputs from natural and anthropogenic sources, and between our research cruise and the spill on Refugio beach it has certainly been an exciting summer.

As a young scientist, I am often focused on trying to conceptualize and understand the scientific literature I’m reading and learn how to implement different... read more » http://www.news.ucsb.edu/diary-research-cruise/it-has-certainly-been-exc...

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