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OCB4005C: Student Blog - Harrison Mancke

The dream many marine biologists have when they first enter the field is to conduct exciting field work on a vessel out at sea—many such marine biologists will quickly learn that field work like this isn’t very common. Usually, it’s trekking out into mangroves with a minnow net, or sampling sediment cores in a local estuary, or catching fish by rod or risking fingers to catch crabs under murky waters. In the Spring of 2021 that initial field work fantasy was given life.

The R/V W.T. Hogarth is the newest vessel in Florida Institute of Oceanography fleet, hosting a floating laboratory fit for up to ten scientists plus crew. My class, composed of eight students, was led by the notorious Dr. Heather Bracken-Grissom and fabulous Stormie Collins. We were to venture as far as 110 nautical miles off the western shore of Florida into the Gulf of Mexico in search of decapods, gastropods, fish, and plankton galore. However, before we could go out to sea, we had to plan, and I learned why these research cruises are so relatively rare.

Planning. Planning. Planning. Thinking and rethinking, coming up with an idea only to have it demolished under scrutiny in the next class. The uncertainty of what sampling equipment we would have—will we have the Tucker trawl? What about the sediment corer? Will the technician for the CTD be on board when we sail? How are you going to collect your data? You need to keep analysis in mind. Will you use ANOVA, T-test, how about Tukey's pairwise comparison? Have you heard about the ANOSIM routine? All these divergent things to take care of, to plan for—and you can’t even be sure your target organism will be in the Gulf!

As intimidating as the whole process was, it was also enthralling. This was science in it’s purest form. Toiling with uncertainty, brain storming ideas only for a windstorm to swipe it away, to then again be besieged by a hurricane of creativity. It’s a mad dash to read as many papers are you can, collecting concepts and methodologies all while mashing them together into your own, novel idea. It was a challenge, and that’s what makes the toil valuable.

Eventually, the uncertainty solidified into a siliceous sludge—something to land on, but something that could fall through at any moment. We couldn’t be sure we would even be allowed to go on the cruise up until the moment we arrived at the harbor, due to COVID-19. However, by the very existence of this blog, COVID couldn’t didn’t stop us this time.

The journey started early morning. Three am, to be exact. Two stops later we managed the long drive from Miami to St. Pete. It was there where we first laid eyes on the R/V W.T. Hogarth. The back deck was littered with Otter trawls, Capetown dredges, the CTD, plankton tows, and the bongo net. All at our disposal (except the CTD—the technician wasn’t on board). Despite this, the cruise was seemingly blessed by a pod of bottlenose dolphin dancing in the bow break as we went out to sea.

My partner and I were only going to use the Capetown dredge and the Otter trawl, as we were sampling the benthos for the species composition of the decapod crustaceans and gastropods therein. The idea was to see if species were stratified by depth and temperature, as well to get a general assessment of biodiversity. We both each had our own side project—his concerning gastropod shell morphology, and mine concerning stomatopod eye investment and environmental factors that influence eye morphology.

As mentioned above, you can’t ever be sure your target organism will even be present, and mine wasn’t—no adult stomatopods ventured into our net, except a lone dactyl from some Squilla. That does not affect the astounding biodiversity of decapod species we managed to capture, though, and for that I am grateful. Throughout the cruise, we learned just how difficult it is to do research, needing to skip one sampling site entirely (RIP Site E) due to seven-foot swells; I learned so many awesome techniques! I can’t wait to flex my identification muscles back at the lab, where I can go under the scope… without feeling nauseous.


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