Deep Research

by Mary Shipp Bartlett

Marine ecology

Twenty marine ecology students from Scripps, Claremont McKenna, and Pitzer Colleges and their professor set out to sea from Long Beach Harbor last March on a crystal-clear morning filled with the promise of adventure.

With backpacks, notebooks, hats, and bottled water, they boarded the R/V Yellowfin, a 76-foot twin-diesel vessel used for oceanographic research by the Southern California Marine Institute (SCMI) and affiliated educational institutions. The group’s mission: collect water samples and practice research techniques in the field. Later, back in Claremont, they would analyze their data and samples, develop a hypothesis, and present their findings.

The trip was one of three that students took spring semester to better understand how biologists adapt their research to different marine environments; other trips were to the tide pools at Laguna Beach and mudflats of Newport Bay.

“The boat trip is always the students’ favorite, except for those who get seasick,” said Sarah Gilman, assistant professor of biology, who teaches the marine ecology course. “It’s the one chance they get to see and hold fish, which they always enjoy.”

Carrie Wolfe, research and educational coordinator for SCMI, said that the goal of such trips is to give students real hands-on time and experience on a vessel. And perhaps, she said, they just might fall in love with marine ecology and make it a lifelong passion.

A few miles out of the harbor, the boat dropped anchor, and the first lesson began. The women, who dominated the class with 16 on this trip, surrounded the “mud station,” where Bob Adams, the SCMI guide, emptied a bucketful of the dark, wet substance into a large container. Adams encouraged students to dig in—to look at the color, smell it, and feel it, since muds from different ocean areas and depths have different properties.

A few more knots out to sea, students participated in the first of several “water stations,” where they dropped a measuring device into the ocean. Using a handheld CTD (conductivity, temperature, and depth) sensor with an LED screen, they were able to check temperature and salinity, pH, and oxygen levels. By analyzing this information, the students could better understand why certain species are thriving or not in a particular environment.

At another point, students collected phytoplankton (small photosynthetic organisms containing chlorophyll) from a vertical tow to a depth of 10 meters using a 20-micrometer biological sampling net. They immediately added the phytoplankton to 95% ethanol for preservation during transport back to the lab for analysis. Jesse Osborn ’13 explained that phytoplankton is important to study since these organisms respond directly to light and nutrient levels, which are necessary for their survival. Monitoring their abundance in a polluted ecosystem can lead to insights for potential recovery.

A dramatic moment came when the otter trawl, which had been tossed off the stern of the vessel, was hauled in and the catch poured into a large container on a table in front of the students. Here was plenty of sea life—some for handling gingerly; others, such as spiny lobsters, were just for observing. Students eagerly picked up a flat fish with a migrating eye (two on one side) and handled other squirming marine life. One discovery in the mix was several pieces of Miocene-age rock, estimated by Adams to be as old as 12 million years.

At day’s end, most of the students came away with renewed enthusiasm and experience employing research tools in the field.

Osborn, who is doing her thesis with Gilman on barnacles and how they respond to low-tide stress, said: “What’s really exciting is that there are all sorts of new technology being invented to make the environment of the ocean much more accessible. Areas that were previously unexplored are now open for human investigation through more accurate water quality sensors, as well as enhanced imaging technologies that are better suited to handle the corrosive salinity and high pressures at deeper depths.”

Osborn hopes that the technological advancements will enable marine scientists to make discoveries that will help humans better understand the ocean, and thus make smarter conservation and management decisions. “For me,” she said, “it just doesn’t get any better than investigating the biological and ecological details of marine organisms, be it barnacle or shark. After this trip, and with all the technology being created, I can’t imagine being anything other than a marine biologist.”

On the journey back to the harbor dock, with the vessel nearing a cruising speed of 10 knots, students relaxed, read over their notes, and enjoyed a few more sightings: a hungry pelican that followed the boat in hopes of picking up cast-off sea life for dinner, a few nonchalant seals, and, to the delight of all, a pod of dolphins swimming portside.

In all, the day was a success. And it’s likely that several fell in love with marine ecology.

In Jesse Osborn’s lab report following the trip, she writes that, in analyzing individual water samples collected from the San Pedro Channel and the Long Beach Harbor, she expected to find more phytoplankton offshore in the channel than in the harbor, where toxic waste, hydrogen sulfide, and no currents create less than optimal phytoplankton conditions. She found the opposite. 


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