NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard R/V Point Sur
June 24 – July 3, 2019
Mission: Microbial Stowaways: Exploring Shipwreck Microbiomes in the deep Gulf of Mexico
Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 24-25, 2019
On Monday I was introduced to the R/V Point Sur in Gulfport, Mississippi. Every nook and cranny of this vessel is packed, and it took the science crew most of the day to pack it even fuller with all the equipment they need. The largest single item is the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Odysseus which makes a large footprint on the back deck. Over it hangs an enormous pulley that will be used to lift Odysseus in and out of the water.
When I arrived at the port, I met Dr. Leila Hamdan, the Chief Scientist, and some of the crew. We have two Rachels on board and they are both graduate students studying microbial biomes. Over time a layer of microbes form a “biofilm” on different kinds of wood and metal. This organic layer forms on the surface of a shipwrecks, and this is what the scientists are studying. They want to know how this layer speeds up or slows down the corrosion of shipwrecks and how other organisms use this habitat.
I was able to join in and help put together microbial recruitment experiment towers, or MREs for short. Each tower is a PVC pipe fitted with samples of wood, both oak and pine, and some metal samples. Each of these pipes fits loosely inside a second pipe, and then each set is roped together and attached to a float. Each tower is rigged in such a way that it will sink to the sea floor vertically, and then the outer pipe will rise to expose the inner tower and the sample plugs. After four months, the MREs will be retrieved, and the scientists will be studying what kinds of microbes grew on the samples. Their experiments add to our understanding of how shipwrecks act as a habitat for corals and other organisms
Finally, at the end of the day we had to quickly load the last of the gear on the ship before a huge container ship of bananas arrived to dock in our space. We set up a “fire line” to hand the last of the gear into the ship as fast as possible. We could see the huge Chiquita banana ship heading our way. The port was already stacked four high with Chiquita banana shipping containers and more bananas were coming! Who is eating so many bananas?!
As the newbie member of the crew, I was allowed to stay on board as the crew moved the ship from the large loading dock to the smaller pier on the other side of the port. This meant I got a taste of the ocean breezes that are going to help keep us cool once we leave land. I saw pelicans glide low over the water as I stood on the deck and imagined all the new and amazing things I am about to see and do.
If you’ve never been to Mississippi in the summer, I can tell you it is HOT and HUMID. It’s hard to imagine until you try to actually do something in it. If you were an egg, you would definitely fry on the sidewalk. Despite the heat, all over the ship crew and scientists are working, bolting things together, greasing mechanical parts, putting last minute touches on their experimental equipment, organizing the lab and working at laptops. To mitigate the heat and humidity outside, the air-conditioning runs on high inside the ship. This helps to keep the humidity from damaging the equipment, as well as to keep the crew happy. So it is actually COLD in here!
In addition to all this activity, a group of high school students visited the ship. They are participating in The Ocean Science and Technology Camp to learn about marine science careers and they will be tracking our progress from shore. Each of our many talented scientists shared a bit about their research and their roles in the ship. I will share more about that in another blog. We are scheduled to leave tonight at 1930 hrs, that’s 7:30PM for most of us! Stay with me, it’s going to be awesome!