For as long as I can remember I have always admired the ocean. My whole life I’ve lived near its mystical shores, swimming and exploring. I have always been certain that Marine Biology was something I wanted to pursue. However, as academia tends to do, my mundane core classes snuffed my light. Then, a couple of years ago, I could start taking my upper division level classes; finally I would be able to study what I had been wanting to all along! The first class I chose was Invertebrate Zoology with Dr. BG, and I am so glad I did. Dr. BG introduced me to a world that I didn’t give much attention to before. Invertebrate Zoology honestly gave me a whole new perspective of ocean life, and made me figure out more specifically what I wanted to study.
During October of last year, Dr. BG had told me that she was going to be offering a class for the spring semester called Special Topics in Biology: Biodiversity and Oceanography at Sea. This class would allow students to propose a hypothesis and then do field work in order to obtain data to support it. Considering Invertebrate Zoology was thus far my favorite class that I had ever taken in my academic career, and knowing Dr. BG is an amazing professor, I was more than ready to hop on board (pun intended).
Fast forward to May, the tiny class of 8 students was given online homework assignments to prepare us for our research cruise. We reviewed our Invert Zoo knowledge, learned how use navigation charts and plan/map a research cruise, learned logistics, went over the different zones of the ocean, and learned how to properly write a research proposal. Each student paired of with another to form groups of two, and proposed questions and hypotheses to Dr. BG the week prior to the cruise. With Dr. BG’s help, each group had chosen one hypothesis to test for the cruise. My partner Victoria and I decided we wanted to study the diurnal migration of Decapod crustaceans.
The following is a day-by-day log of my and my classmates’ time upon the research vessel, carrying out our studies, with splashes (pun intended once again) of what it was like living on a boat for a few days.
2 May 2017
The drive down to Key West was pleasant. Victoria and I made good timing, and even stopped at the cutest little place to grab a bite to eat (which was absolutely delicious to boot). We arrived at the Key West Bight Marina at 5 pm, and after a little confusion with parking, we finally got to the boat to load up our luggage. The boat that is to be our home for the next few days is called the R/V Bellows. It is an old, repurposed boat that has seen its fair share of days, but we are all excited and optimistic. We separated ourselves in two groups of three and one group of four (my group). We went down to the bunks to store our things, giggling at the tiny space allotted to us. The captain, Billy, went over the rules of the boat, and then proceeded to tell us that the weather was going to delay our departure until the early morning. A little bummed out, but still excited, we decided to grab some dinner and discuss our hopes and plans for the trip.
3 May 2017
The first night of sleep went relatively well. When the boat started moving it woke me up, but I fell back asleep pretty easily. I have been on boats before, and even stayed out at sea, but it still takes a little while to get used to this unstable world.
We ate breakfast at 7 this morning, and it was actually really good. Our cook Patrick made eggs and waffles. We are at our first station; Station A. This is the deepest and furthest site out of the three picked for our trip. We deployed our first Tucker Trawl an hour ago at about 500 meters; the bottom depth is 725 meters. After that, we set up the our “wet lab” with various supplies including: ethanol/RNAlater squirt bottles, specimen examination trays, whirl paks (to keep specimens in), a dissecting microscope, petri dishes, kimwipes, pens/pencils, and other objects commonly found in a lab. I cut out a bunch of pieces of waterproof paper so that they can be used as labels for when we identify our catch. When we do figure out what we caught we are going to write what the specimen is as well as the date, trawl number, station, and class ID. We filled four Tupperware containers with seawater and put them into the freezer, so that we could recreate proper temperature for the catch while we examine it.
With the smell of a classic American lunch consisting of hot dogs and baked beans filling our noses, we finish setting up and review our taxonomy and morphology notes to prepare for the arrival of our crustaceans.
Tucker Trawl #1 was brought up at 2:10 pm. We all gathered outside and started plucking off specimens caught in the net, and put them into containers filled with cold seawater. After the net was fully examined, we brought the specimens back to our makeshift lab so that we could sort them out even further. We separated specimens by initial morphological observations and then put them under the microscope so that we might identify them at a species level. We ended up catching various kinds of shrimps, as well as copepods, amphipods, crab larvae, mantis shrimp larvae, krill, a heteropod, and other tiny organisms. We kept the shrimp and krill, as well as the copepods and amphipods by storing them in whirl paks filled with ethanol. We deployed Trawl #2 at 2:31 pm and cleaned our lab station. After refueling ourselves with chips and ice cream, we sit and wait for when we pull up our second trawl to see what we catch this time.
Trawl #2 was brought up at 5:28 pm. Right now we are all sorting through the specimens just as we did with Trawl #1. Patrick is in the kitchen working just as hard on dinner.
The HBG crew is finishing preserving samples and cleaning up. We already ate dinner, which consisted of pork loin, sweet carrots, seasoned boiled potatoes, and a light salad. We have some time to kill now; our next deployment will be at 10:30 pm, and we’ll retrieve it at 1 am. We will all probably sneak back to our cabins for a quick shut eye, and maybe eat ice cream for a third time today. Boat life is simple, but I think the Dramamine, food, and the rocking of the boat is making us all a little sleepy. The sun is setting off the stern of the boat; it looks so beautiful. I am going to watch it set and take pictures.
4 May 2017
The third trawl was brought up at 1:10 am. Before we started our usual separation and identification, we looked for bioluminescence in our catch. We saw the glow of pyrosomes (an animal that is the equivalent of a gooey glow stick), as well as some fishes; it was pretty neat. Everyone seems to be relatively awake and excited.
Last night was a rough one. This was the rockiest the boat has gotten thus far. There was a few times the boat rocked so hard that I thought it was going to flip over; we all discussed how intense it was.
We’re at Station B now. I missed the first deployment because I slept in, but it’s coming up now. We’re switching out the Tucker Trawl for the Otter Trawl and, due to weather, we’re going to trawl close back to land to try and gather as many specimens as possible.
The HBG crew is on deck with their worn out life jackets in the process of bringing in the Otter Trawl now. Patrick is busy in the kitchen preparing lunch for us all; I’m not sure what is on the menu for today, but as always, it smells delicious; and since I missed breakfast I’m quite hungry. The last trawl was much like the last; we did catch a scaphopod (otherwise known as a tusk shell, although empty), and a special kind of hermit crab that was without its shell. There was also a baby squid amongst our catch.
Bad luck struck us when the Otter Trawl ripped at Station C; therefore we had to stop trawling. I did get to personally identify one of the many little shrimps we caught, which was very exciting for me. I figured out that this shrimp was the Latreutes fucorum by looking at key morphological features and following a book on what to look for. Besides getting to do this, there was another silver lining. We actually all got an afternoon to swim in the refreshing teal waters that we had been on for the past few days. We were not anticipating getting into the water, so none of us had brought our fins, snorkels, nor goggles; luckily there were two pairs of each on board, and we all took turns using them. The current was quite strong, resulting in a nice workout for the team. We were snorkeling at 3 meters, but none of us found anything too exciting on the benthos—there were lots of empty shells and sargassum. One of my classmates and I were the last two out at sea and the rest of the HBG crew on board shouted out to us that there was (possibly) a sea turtle out by us. He and I attempted to swim over to it, but we weren’t able to catch or see it in time.
We have to head back to port a little earlier than expected. They are calling for some bad weather and we can’t risk being out there. Even though we’ll be back tonight, and we weren’t able to do all the trawls as planned, I still feel like this was a great experience. The people I had the pleasure of being with on this voyage are all amazing and intelligent, and brought their own energy to the group. It was interesting seeing everyone collaborating and giving their input. I highly recommend this class to anyone who is looking to get a real life experience of field work, and have a passion for the outdoors.