Mike Laurs prepares to deploy a water sampling bottle in the Pacific.

The Pacific Ocean west of Newport is among the most well studied seas on the planet. It still has secrets to tell.

By Nancy Steinberg

February 2, 2018

LAST FALL, OREGON STATE’S SMALL RESEARCH VESSEL ELAKHA embarked on an overnight cruise, setting sail under clear fall skies, unseasonably warm in the late afternoon. The ocean’s swell, just enough to force a landlubber to hold onto the rails, hadn’t turned to chop. The boat and its small crew headed straight out into the ocean to collect samples on what is known as the Newport Hydrographic Line, a swath of water that scientists have been monitoring for nearly 60 years.

While still in the protected waters of Yaquina Bay, Jennifer Fisher prepared the sampling equipment, deftly shackling cables to the boat’s winch system, lining up specimen jars and unfurling zooplankton nets. Fisher is a scientist with the joint NOAA-OSU Cooperative Institute for Marine Resource Studies (CIMRS) and the coordinator of regular sampling along the line. The boat had had engine trouble the day before, but for the moment everything was humming along. At the end of the jetty, the captain slowed to navigate carefully around a gray whale, which surfaced intermittently and spouted, as if wishing the crew a safe trip.

Elakha’s route followed a line drawn decades ago by Wayne Burt, the founder of Oregon State’s oceanography program. In its current incarnation, regular sampling here contrasts high-tech against low-tech: It is conducted by robots and human beings. The work is both routine and surprising; continuous but also intermittent. Dozens of people collect the data. Hundreds use it. Thousands, if not more, benefit from what is learned. Despite the changes that have taken place in the sampling regime over decades, the basic justification remains the same: Monitoring the coastal ocean frequently, in person, over long time periods, provides invaluable information. This enduring commitment will only become more critical in this time of enormous global change.

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