Betsy Petrick: Highs and Lows of Scientific Exploration, June 27, 2019




NOAA Teacher at Sea

Betsy Petrick

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 27, 2019

Science Log

Yesterday was a doozy of a day I think everyone on the ship would agree.  One frustrating setback after another had to be overcome, but one by one each problem was solved and the day ended successfully.  If you would like to read more about this expedition, it is featured on the NOAA Ocean Exploration and Research website.

The first discovery yesterday morning was that the ship’s pole-mounted ultrashort baseline tracking system (USBL) had been zapped with electricity overnight and was unusable.  This piece of equipment is a key piece of a complex system. Without it we would not know precisely where the ROV was, nor could we control the sweeps of the ROV over the shipwrecks for accurate mapping.  The scheduled dive time of 1330 (that’s 1:30PM!) was out of the question. There was even talk of returning to port to get new equipment. Yikes. This would cost the expedition $30,000-$40,000 for a full 24 hours of operation, and no one wanted to do this. 

Max, the team’s underwater systems engineer, worked his magic, and replaced the damaged part.   This required expert knowledge and some tricky maneuvers. Once this was fixed, the next step was to send a positioning beacon down to the seafloor to calibrate the signal from the ship to the ROV so that we would be able to track it precisely.  Calibrating means that the ship and the ROV have to agree on where home is. The beacon is attached to three floats connected together to make a “lander”, and then 2 heavy weights are attached as well. The weights take the beacon down. The lander brings it back to the surface later.  The deployment went without a hitch. However, when the lander floated to the surface, we noticed it was floating in a strange way. When we hauled it aboard, we discovered that one of the glass floats had imploded – probably due to a material defect under the intense pressure at 1200m below sea level – and all we had left of that unit was a shattered mess of yellow plastic. 

imploded float
The glass float inside this yellow “hard hat” imploded. It’s a good thing there are two others to bring the transponder back to the surface.

In spite of that, the calibration was complete and we could send the ROV on its mission.  We loaded the experiments onto the back of the ROV, along with another lander and weights.  This was the exciting moment! The crane lifted the ROV off the ship deck and swung it out over the water.  But in the process, the chain holding the weights broke and, with a mighty groan from all of us watching, both of them sank into the sea.  Back came the ROV for a new set of weights. Luckily nothing was damaged. By 1745 (5:30PM), 5 hours after the scheduled time, the ROV went over the side for a second time successfully.  Once this was done the Chief Scientist was able to crack a smile and relax a bit.

mounting a new lander
The team works to mount a new lander on the ROV.
Launching the ROV
Launching the ROV off the back deck, loaded with experimental equipment and a lander.
mechanical arm
The mechanical arm on the ROV retrieved a microbial experiment left on the sea floor in 2017. We watched it all on the big screen in the lab.

Now we had an hour to wait for the ROV to reach the sea floor again, and begin its mission of deploying and retrieving experiments.  Inside the cabin of the ship, some of us sat mesmerized by the drifting phytoplankton on the big screen, hoping to see the giant squid that had been spotted on the last expedition. Up in the pilothouse the captain was on duty holding the ship in one spot for as long as it took for the ROV to return. Not an easy job!  

Yesterday I saw what scientific exploration is really like.  As someone said, “Two means one, and one means none,” meaning that when you are out at sea, you have to have a second or even a third of every critical piece of equipment because something is inevitably going to break and you will not be able to run to Walmart for a new one.  Failures and setbacks are part of the game. As a NOAA Teacher at Sea, I am looking at all that goes on on the ship through the lens of a classroom teacher. Yesterday’s successes were due to clear headed thinking, perseverance, and team work by many. These are precisely the qualities I hope I can foster in my students.  

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