Monday, May 1st - ID Party!
The day before we embarked on the Organismal Diversity Cruise, the HBG lab hosted an identification party! Our professor, Heather Bracken-Grissom, led a brief review of crustacean taxonomy and classification on species we would expect to encounter in the Florida Straits. We reviewed Dendrobranchia (suborder), Penaeoidea and Sergestidae (superfamilies), and Caridea, Astocidea, Achelata, Axiidea, Anomura, Brachyura (infraorders). Heather also provided a “cheat sheet” of shrimp identification down to the species level. Afterwards we went to lab to put our ID skills to the test! Heather and post doc, Danielle DeLeo, arranged a random collection of specimen jars for us to practice identifying. We all had to try to identify the species to at least the Family level. My partner, Erika Somoza, and I enthusiastically identified the specimens that were selected, one after the other. Most of the students identified to the species level and one student even found a misclassification for one of the specimen jars! Needless to say, we were stoked to embark on our cruise the next day and put our skills to the real test!
Tuesday, May 2nd - “The Show Must Go Wrong”
Today is the day!!! Danielle, Heather, and I head down to Key West for the Key West Bight Marina where we expect to embark on our research journey on the RV Bellows. A few hours prior to arriving in Key West, I learned an important lesson in research: the show must go wrong. A quote from the television show, Parks and Recreation, perfectly sums this up: “The show must go wrong. Everything always goes wrong, and you just have to deal with it”. Wrong did it go - we found out that our original captain fell down a flight of stairs and broke his back. A last minute replacement crew had to be arranged. The new captain did not see Heather’s emails with our class’s plans or know our planned logistics. Additionally, the weather was not in our favor. The Bellows cannot handle waves more than 5 feet high and the weather reports forecasted those unfavorable conditions. Even though things went wrong, I admired how Heather was quick to switch gears and was ready to do what it took to provide a wholesome experience for our class regardless of the daunting situation.
When we got to the RV Bellows, Heather spoke to the new captain to make a new plan while everyone else loaded the Bellows with lab supplies, personal items, and our spirit of adventure. Regardless if things did not go as planned, we still anticipated to learn and enjoy the cruise as much as possible. We would spend the night on the boat and at 4 am it would be decided if the boat would disembark. Well, around 4 am I awoke to the motion of the boat. I spent the rest of the night half sleeping, fear that one wave would knock me from my bed and cause me to land on Heather who was sleeping below. I have been on boats with rough waves. Being a small human being, I tend to bounce if the boat hits a strong enough wave. The spirit of adventure turned to the spirit of paranoia real quick.
Wednesday, May 3rd – Everyday We Trawlin’
Breakfast at 7 am! It was surprisingly delicious and nutritious breakfast. The rest of the meals throughout the cruise were tasty as well. Our first tucker trawl release took place around 11 am, where it descended to 500 to 600 feet below the surface. It would remain submerged for 2 hours. In the meantime, we assembled a makeshift lab with processing trays, ethanol, RNA later (or RNA luego), whirl packs, microscope, featherweight forceps, etc. Erika and I also prepared for our project.
Each group has a project they were supposed to conduct during the research cruise. Erika and I decided to make ours an inventory of bioluminescent organisms in the Florida Straits. We created a "black out" tube so we could observe bioluminescent organisms in action. The bioluminescent organisms we stored in there were Scina amphipods. We stored them in the fridge to keep the water temperature cool and dark like their deep-sea environment.
At noon, our first trawl was brought up. Our catch of deep-sea specimens included hatchet fish, lantern fish, viperfish, eel larvae, pyrosome, and lots of shrimps that needed further identification. The shrimps that were Sergia and Sergestes had to be properly identified when we got back to the HBG lab. They will be used for the Sergestidae Phylogeny project.
Processing took 2 to 3 hours to identify specimens, log them in our databases, preserving them in either EtOH or RNA later, and safely storing them in our cooler. It was all a team effort though and we made it fun. Our new seafarer hobbies include observing specimens, napping, and devouring ice cream.
The next trawl that took place in the evening brought up similar specimens and phronima sedentaria! This freaky little amphipod-alien became one of my new favorite crustaceans.
The night trawl was retrieved around 1 am and we sorted specimens until 3 am. For some reason, I was not feeling too well during that trawl, probably too much ice cream during the day. Either way, I tried to help with processing as much as possible. The highlight of my night was seeing the pyrosomes showing off their beautiful bioluminescence. It was impossible to record their bioluminescence, but I was happy to witness it.
At the end of the day I am happy, exhausted, but happy! I underestimated how much working, sleeping, and living on a boat for a few days would be. It’s all a part of the experience and it made me appreciate how much work really goes into a research cruise.
Thursday, May 4th - When the Otter Trawl Breaks, We Take a Break!
Another tucker trawl was conducted. More of the usual was collected. We decided to head for shallower
water and switch from the tucker trawl to an otter trawl. The show went wrong, again. The otter trawl broke and we did not collect the specimens we needed. We ended up collecting sponges, sea stars, and brittle stars. It did not put a damper on our spirits, not much later we found a huge sargassum patch! The biggest I have ever seen in my life! It was much larger than the boat itself. With our sophisticated pole-and-bucket technology, we collected sargassum and floating debris like coconuts and wood. We tried to get as much of the plastic as we could. Since we could not conduct more trawls, it was decided that we would take a break and go for a swim! The captain threw out a long line. We jumped off the back of the boat and swam for a while. Swimming in the middle in the ocean never fails to feel so good, especially after living in cramped conditions.
Erika and I took the blackout tube to my cabin to observe if the Scina amphipods would bioluminescence for us. They were not able to, but at least we had fun trying new ideas!
Later that night, we came back early to Bight Marina since there was a storm approaching. We did not mind. We continued to have fun and explore the Key West nightlife, as curious marine biologists do best.
Friday, May 5th – Homeward Bound
Our last day, we packed up the lab and our belongings to head back for home. Overall, I loved the research cruise. I have worked in the HBG lab as an intern for 2 years and I am so thankful for Heather for providing me and her students with opportunities to get out of our comfort zones and conduct real science! We witnessed things marine biology students only fantasize about. I love active and hands-on learning that gets me dirty, that doesn’t let me sleep, that lets me form new friendships, and deepens my appreciation and love for marine biology.
Tuesday, May 2nd
We arrived at Key West Bight Marina. Like most research cruises, things did not go according to
plan. The captain notified us that the conditions were too rough to depart port. We stayed around the Marina and got to know each other and the crew. We were introduced to the crew and the cook which were some very entertaining characters. As it was my first research cruise I was surprised and happy to find that there would be a cook preparing all of our meals and a fridge stocked full of ice cream. I am a bit nervous because I don't really know what to expect, but I'm also really excited to see what is in store for the rest of the trip! Departure began at around 4:00 am the following morning. I was able to tell we departed because amidst my sleep I was woken up by rocking. I think I almost fell out of my cot at one point, we were living the real sailor life!
Wednesday, May 3rd
We conducted two day trawls today, both with the tucker trawls where we caught different species of crustaceans and deep-sea fish such as hatchets, and vipers.
Today we created a new method to ID our bioluminescent organisms. My partner Lauren and I created a miniature dark room out of a plastic container and taped it with black garbage bags to block out the light. We have been storing the portable “dark jar” in the fridge and plan on taking the bioluminescent amphipods in them to a dark place on the ship to see if they will spew the bioluminescent material. Most of the organisms present in the mobile dark room are the Scina amphipods.
Today I also learned how to sort and preserve deep sea organisms. Since I have only handled some fish and juvenile bull sharks in the field it was awesome to learn how to handle deep sea crustaceans. Water had to be put in the freezer so that it could be at the right temperature for the deep sea critters as we were placing them onto trays and sorting them out. We hauled the tucker trawl in and were ready with feather tweezers to pick out some of the little guys who had been caught in the net into our little tupperware full of cold water. The fish and organisms that we caught looked out of this world. The mouth of the viperfish when we would open up his little jaw was incredible to see how wide his mouth got and imagining how he would probably attack his prey. The Phronima had to be my favorite critter that we caught hands down. This little amphipod looks like something that would haunt you in your dreams but is so cool! The phronima actually attacks a salp and carves its way inside creating a little barrel as its home. It really is incredible to have an opportunity to actually see these little critters up close and personal.
Thursday May 4th :
Night trawl: Our first night trawl took place at 1:00 am this morning. I set my alarm for 12:50 pm because I was so excited and was one of the first ones on deck. Before bringing up the net a swordfish was spotted on the side of the boat. To see the huge light over the back of the ship with the rough waters and that swordfish on the side really felt like something out of whale wars. The captain brought the net up at around 1:20. Upon retrieval there were many bioluminescent organisms, one of them being pyrosomes that were shining like glow sticks. Various bioluminescent amphipods that we are using for our bioluminescence inventory were collected and we put the live ones in our self made dark room.
Morning trawl: This morning we deployed the tucker trawl at around 7:13, the net reached bottom at 7:31. We allowed the net to fish for about 2 hours and then began pulling up the tucker trawl at 9:30, not much was brought up but gelatinous material and some crustaceans. For the next trawls we will be switching to the otter trawl.
The otter trawl didn't go exactly according to plan. As I am learning most things don't, but that's ok because we make the best of it and have a very resourceful crew. As we dropped the otter trawl we actually felt the boat shift a bit as if it had just ran over a speed bump. That was actually our otter trawl snapping. Instead we set out on a sargassum search. There was so much sargassum in the water it looked like a blanket. We collected a lot of sargassum which invertebrates usually love to reside in. We also got what looked like two mop heads and towed them around the back of the ship. We were hoping that they would pick up at least some things in the water column (they didn't), but that's science, you test out one method and if it doesn't work out you move on to the next! We sorted through the sargassum and tried to find some critters, I did find a pretty big polychaete inside of a piece of wood I cracked, it was the biggest polychaete I had ever seen outside of pictures. The rest of the day was pretty relaxed, we played some cards on deck and ate more ice cream.
Friday May 5th :
The trip has come to an end and I wish the cruise was longer! We all had our last breakfast and packed up our things and bid our farewells to the crew.
This research cruise has taught me so much. It's one thing to learn from reading a textbook but it's nothing compared to these situations in real life. Before going on the cruise I had a good background in identification of crustaceans but now I can say it is much stronger. I really loved seeing deep sea critters that you wouldn't have a chance to see at all. Looking at their different body morphology and adaptations to being at such deep depths really encompassed everything I had learned in class. The way we set up a lab on a ship while it was rocking back, and forth and sorting and trying to identify species gave me a taste of the real cruise life. Before going on this cruise I was wrapped up in my chemistry and math classes just trying to survive the semester like any other student, but this class really gave me something to look forward to even during finals week. I left that ship remembering why I chose Marine Biology in the first place, and recommend this course to any student who wants to keep learning more, and get a taste of the real cruise life.