If they had come home early, you wouldn’t have been surprised. Half of them got seasick. Equipment failed. And the weather changed unexpectedly. But last April, 11 Oregon college students from three institutions — Oregon State University, the University of Oregon and Clatsop Community College — stuck it out for four days at sea on Oregon State’s research vessel Oceanus and learned what it’s like to run their own oceanographic research cruise. They returned with respect for the difficulties of doing science on a rolling ocean and a better understanding of what stirs beneath Oregon’s coastal waters.
The students deployed and piloted two autonomous underwater gliders, captured underwater video, collected data on water chemistry and phytoplankton and monitored currents as well as upwelling and downwelling events. Unfortunately, oxygen sensors on the ship’s ocean sampler failed, and some sensors secured to a mooring were lost in heavy seas.
When the unexpected happened, the two students who served as chief scientists (Alejandra Sanchez and Rosie Gradoville of OSU) had to make rapid adjustments, said Anqelicque White, one of the organizers and an assistant professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS). To compensate, the students collected extra water samples and relied heavily on the glider measurements.
“They had a profound lesson in doing real oceanography,” added Kipp Shearman, associate professor in CEOAS. “It was particularly exciting for me to see how they grappled with a lot of the same things that I do now as a scientist.”
The students were tackling an oceanographic conundrum: what underlies occasionally rapid and drastic changes to underwater habitats. They zeroed in on a hotspot along the central Oregon coast, the Cape Perpetua Marine Reserve. In past years, this area has seen abnormally low oxygen conditions — leading to what has been called a “dead zone.”
The students looked at the factors that might cause extreme low oxygen conditions to arise. They also considered how those factors might affect fish, crabs and other sea life. The issue is particularly important now because fishing restrictions went into effect in the reserve in 2013, and scientists want to know whether future ecosystem changes are due to natural variability or to changes in fishing.
Lives on the Line
The students’ results are providing scientists with useful data about the Reserve, but the experience of planning and carrying out experiments was life changing. “The thing that surprised me the most was the amount of foresight and planning that is required for a successful cruise,” said Molly O’Neill a University of Oregon graduate student in an email. “Even for just a four-day cruise, the principal investigators (scientists) expend an enormous amount of time and energy planning every hour of every day. From the loading dock to the university, there is so much that needs to be accounted for. The logistics need to be thought through in such extreme detail because time, money and people’s lives are on the line. It was a tremendous learning experience that will stay with us forever.”
For Alejandra Sanchez, an Oregon State graduate student, the trip was worth the problems the students encountered. “I always get seasick in research ships, sometimes worse than others, but I really enjoy going out and do it anyway,” she said. “It’s the adventure that attracts me. You are out there trying to find something, and you are using all this equipment to find it, so I feel like an explorer. Sometimes you find what you are looking for, and sometimes you find something else, but you always learn something new.”
The level of teamwork also provided an important lesson. “One of my favorite things about the cruise was the opportunity to work on a tight-knit team, aligned towards the same goal,” wrote O’Neill. “Everyone had a job, but we all relied on each other for support and morale. Perhaps the most important thing we learned was how to safely work aboard a pitching and rolling vessel on the high seas.”
Shearman, White and their CEOAS colleague Laurie Juranek applied for financial support for the trip through what may be a unique program in the United States. In 2013, the State Legislature created a $300,000 fund at Oregon State University for oceanographic research. State agencies and Oregon University System faculty and students are eligible to apply for funding. A Research Vessel Council chaired by Jack Barth, professor and associate dean for research in CEOAS, reviews grant requests.
“State funding for an educational expedition like this is huge,” said White. “We are so grateful to the legislators for making this possible for the students.”