Oregon State University

College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Pupil of the Pacific

Feature Stories

Part I: Earning Her Sea Legs

Part II
Pupil of the Pacific

How did the cruise go, you may be wondering?

The experience was more than I could have asked for.

Working on the deck of the ship, boat hook in hand as waves splashed against the railings, I learned a thing or two. In my first shift, I roped the frame of a sediment corer to pull it on deck, then hoisted nets overboard to catch plankton, and afterwards manned the computer to lower the conductivity temperature depth device.

The work was difficult at first; scientific instruments felt heavy and ungainly in my hands. I held my breath each time an instrument went overboard, watching intently in case anything went wrong. My skin took on a salty sheen, and my legs grew tired from standing on a rocking ship. I began to grasp why this class is called an Oceanography Bootcamp.

And yet, at the end of my shift each day, I couldn't fall asleep. I tossed and turned in my bunk, my mind reeling from everything I had learned. It pained me to know that, although I needed the sleep, I was missing the action back on deck.

Many of my classmates mirrored my enthusiasm. There was a shared understanding that we were incredibly lucky to have this opportunity, and we took that seriously. In the planning stages back on land, we packed our cruise schedule to the brim with instrument deployments. This was our only shot to get the data we were looking for.

Kerstin Cullen, a fellow OSU graduate student, knew from her previous fieldwork experiences that our plan was ambitious. "It was unusual to have back-to-back deployments and the amount of instrument diversity that we had," said Cullen.

But if graduate school has taught me one thing, it's that there is nothing like a deadline to make students deliver. By the fourth day of the cruise, we were ahead of schedule. By the end of the cruise, we had achieved all of the main objectives we had set out to do.

My personal project focused on measuring ocean currents along our cruise route. As I explained in Part I of this post, one of our main research questions was to explore whether wind patterns caused upwelling on the lee side of the islands. Strong upwelling can bring deep, nutrient-rich water to the surface, where sun-loving ocean life such as plankton can take advantage. Pinpointing regions where upwelling occurs can help us map out areas of enhanced ocean productivity across the globe.

Fortunately, my two current profiling instruments required very little maintenance. Other than the occasional check, most of my time on board was dedicated to helping my peers, which gave me a perfect chance to learn as much diverse science as possible.

My favorite instrument to deploy was the kite. A diamond shaped, brightly colored recreation kite similar to one you would see on the Oregon coast, its purpose was to take atmospheric measurements at sea. Attached to the kite's string were small lightweight devices that recorded temperature, humidity and other atmospheric properties.

The kite was the brainchild of the atmospheric scientists onboard, Mike Kula and Daniel Watkins. The pair set out to study the interaction between the ocean and atmosphere, and adopted the kite as the method to take measurements close to the ocean's surface. Releasing weather balloons would have been a more typical way to record atmospheric data, but balloons rise too quickly to take sufficient measurements at low altitudes.

The pair chose to study the relationship between the air and sea to shed light on how areas of ocean upwelling affect atmospheric properties. This may seem like an odd connection, but the ocean and the atmosphere often feed off each other in unexpected ways. The formation of hurricanes, for example, depends on both unique weather patterns and the presence of warm ocean water beneath it.

Each time the kite went up, crewmembers and students crowded on deck, craning their necks to get a look. In those moments, I couldn't help but feel a sense of childlike wonder at the sight: a single pink and red kite, flying 400 feet in the air, casting a sliver of shadow on the Pacific Ocean below.

One thing that surprised me about my time at sea was how truly remote we were. I never saw a passing vessel the entire cruise. What's more, in my imagination beforehand, I had visions of working on deck before a backdrop of luscious Hawaiian Islands. But in reality, we rarely spotted land; we wavered between 20 and 50 miles offshore during the majority of the cruise.

A pair of students, Cameron Allen and Kevin Tennyson, took advantage of our deep-sea surroundings to study nutrient transport in the open ocean. Hawaii sits in the center of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a huge rotating circuit of currents that spans much of the Pacific in the northern hemisphere. Waters stuck in the center of large ocean gyres like this one are famously low in nutrients, and those nutrients can limit the abundance of ocean life.

What's more, physical processes like wind mixing and ocean upwelling can impact the concentration of nutrients in the surface of the ocean. Our cruise took us through some of the windiest locations on the lee side of the islands, as well as several regions of potential upwelling.

Considering these factors, Allen and Tennyson formulated a way to sample both the biology of the surface ocean and the physical environment. Allen took samples of ocean water and tested for nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Tennyson used a lightweight probe to measure for tiny variations in water temperature that might suggest ocean mixing. Together, they used this data to discern nutrient transport and differentiation. Gaining a better understanding of how nutrients move through the ocean, Allen explained, "can help generate expectations for global biogeochemical cycling." This information may be sorely needed when future ocean warming changes the dynamics of the open ocean.

The most onerous obstacle we faced while on board was taking sediment cores. Our deep-sea sediment coring device was particularly finicky to deploy. I was on shift with one of the OSU graduate students in charge of the corer, Sarah Seabrook. Her research question was to determine the fate of organic material that fell to the seafloor. Organic matter can either become buried or be consumed by bottom-dwelling inhabitants, such as microbes.

First, we had to get the sediment. The whole process of dropping the corer from the deck, landing it on the ocean floor and bringing it back up took over four hours. When the first try was unsuccessful, Seabrook began troubleshooting. "I remember thinking, 'What do we do now?'" Seabrook said after the first core came up empty. Her answer? "We've got to keep on trying."

After 12 hours of repeated attempts, we were still empty handed. The corer had pre-tripped several times, shutting its coring tubes before hitting the bottom. Once that was fixed, the corer brought up muddy water, indicating that it hit the bottom but had not penetrated the sediment. Adjusting the landing gear and moving weights each time, we were getting closer to perfecting our deployment.

Regardless of the improvements, the allotted time for coring was over. The schedule was so tight that we had to halt operations and move on to our other projects. Typically, an entire cruise is dedicated to taking sediment cores, spending from days to weeks extracting sediment. Spending time finessing the corer at the start of these cruises is also typical, since sediment corers are notoriously fussy, even for seasoned oceanographers.

By the second to last day, we were ahead of schedule, and there was time to give coring another shot. I have to admit, even as I worked to prepare the instrument, I had my doubts that it would work. We lowered the corer into the water once again, this time with fewer core tubes to increase the force of penetration.

Mercifully, we struck mud. The cores came back on deck full of sediment. To Seabrook's credit, she had stayed confident during the trials and tribulations.

"It was a good lesson in not giving up, and holding your own on a cruise," Seabrook said.

The long hours at work began to wear on us in the end. Cullen confessed that on the morning of the fourth day, "I put hot sauce on my French toast, and then maple syrup on my eggs." I fell prey to the exhaustion as well. I recall resting a glass of water on myself as I sat down for a moment, then waking up to find that I had fallen asleep and spilled water all over my lap.

Despite the fatigue, the work was worth it. Cullen noted the complete transformation of her peers over the course of the term. "Watching people grow as a field researcher, from never having used power tools before, to building their own handmade crates, that was great."

I saw that same transformation within myself. In the beginning of the cruise, I barely knew how to hold a boat hook or tie a knot. I had never replaced a watertight seal or secured a hose clamp, let alone deployed a scientific instrument into the ocean. By the end of the cruise, I not only acquired these skills, but could teach them to my peers as well.

I also gained a deep appreciation for what it takes to collect observational measurements at sea. Attaining any kind of field data takes a vast amount of expertise, troubleshooting and ingenuity. I have an immense respect for those who make their careers on the water.

Back on land, I look at my own research in ocean modeling with a more pragmatic eye. I had studied the ocean for the past two years, but had I ever truly experienced it? No textbook or class can accurately show how magnificent the ocean really is. Like my fellow student Kula put it, "I've never seen anything that blue."

Jenessa Duncombe and classmate

Jenessa Duncombe and Classmate

Featured Students

Kerstin Cullen

Kerstin Cullen Sarah Seabrook

Sarah Seabrook

Team 1:

Kevin Tennyson

Kevin Tennyson

Cameron Allen

Cameron Allen

Team 2:

Mike Kula

Mike Kula

Daniel Watkins

Daniel Watkins