Oregon State University

College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Earning Her Sea Legs

Feature Stories

Part I
Earning Her Sea Legs

Graduate student Jenessa Duncombe describes her first research cruise to Hawaii, where she and fellow students will be taking measurements to understand how the island's strong winds affect the upper layer of the ocean—from turbulence to ocean nutrients to plankton. Read about her journey below:

I have a confession: I'm an oceanographer who's never been to sea.

As a graduate student studying models of ocean turbulence at Oregon State University, my research takes place exclusively on my computer. I work on dry, unmoving land. I have a photo of the Oregon coast taped to the wall next to my desk, but I'm pretty sure that doesn't count for anything.

Many graduate students like me research the Earth remotely through models or satellite. This science is important, but we rarely get the chance to see what we study with our own eyes. That is, until now.

This May, 14 graduate students set sail on R/V Oceanus to learn the ropes of ocean fieldwork as part of a graduate-level class nicknamed 'Oceanography Bootcamp.' After months of preparation, experimental design and cruise planning, we will act as the lead scientists on board, working together to implement our research plan. From this experience, we will learn how to design and lead our own science in the field.

Lucky for us, the backdrop isn't too shabby. The cruise begins in Honolulu, Hawaii, and weaves around the islands of O'ahu and Moloka'i for the remainder of the voyage. But the location was chosen for more than the natural beauty. The Hawaiian seas are much calmer waters than the stormy springtime Oregon coast. The location serves as a better testing ground for the first timers aboard, like me.

Hawaii is special for another reason: the islands are one of the few landmarks in the vast Pacific Ocean. They stand in the way of the westward trade winds that blow uninhibited over thousands of miles of the Pacific almost year round. The winds are so persistent they have been known to morph the growth of trees (try googling 'wind blown trees Hawaii').

The strong winds pass through the channels between the islands, while the tall volcanic mountains block weaker winds. The result is an island wake pattern, where winds on the lee side of the island range from glassy calm to gusts over 20 knots. We will study how this wind pattern affects the upper layer of the ocean. Our hypothesis is that upwelling will occur and affect turbulence, ocean nutrients and plankton.

The main thing I have learned leading up to the cruise is the importance of working in teams. Since the graduate students hail from multiple flavors of oceanography, the experiments are a hodge-podge mix of biology, physics and atmospheric science. For example, take our cruise itinerary. Our first stop is the southern tip of O'ahu, where we will take ocean sediment cores at over 1,500 meters deep. Next we will steam over to Moloka'i, taking measurements of the ocean's salinity and temperature by dangling a chain from the front of the ship, among other things. Next, plankton will be caught in net tows. And somewhere in the mix, a (waterproof) drone will fly around the boat for ten minutes at a time to measure atmospheric pressure.

The result will be a symphony of scientific instruments, one after the other, day in and day out, synched with each other to stop and start at exactly the right moment. Although each student may be interested in a different scientific question, we are all here to do the same thing: to learn to be a sea-going researcher. And we can't wait to start.

Part II: Pupil of the Pacific

The Journey Begins

The Journey Begins