Platform for science: equipment is key

The science team and crew launch MOCNESS, an array of small plankton nets that trigger at different depths, helping researchers gauge activity in the food web at varying points in the water column. (Photo by Bret Yager)

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of reports from the Research Vessel Atlantis as Managing Editor Bret Yager joins 21 scientists, students and teachers in studying the ocean food web off the Oregon and Northern California Coast.


THE SEA — Five miles offshore of a fog-wrapped headland, the 275-foot hull of the Research Vessel Atlantis moves gently through the water, its 3,512 tons of weight helping to smooth its roll.

This two-week research trip has the quiet urgency of any commercial fisherman’s winter crab opener, and the concepts are the same — a lot of resources, time and planning have been invested, and entire research projects hang on the retrieval of a clean and complete data set.

Meaning that these 21 scientists and supporting crew must bring home a catch from the waters off Newport and Northern California.

Second Mate Amy Biddle stands posted on the bridge at a dynamic positioning consul, where she has at her fingertips the force of three thrusters, one forward and two astern.

On deck, the team from the Hatfield Marine Science Center and other institutions concentrates on deploying the MOCNESS, a complex array of ocean condition sensors and small plankton nets set to trigger at different depths within an ungainly steel frame. Biddle’s job is also intricate. She must measure wind, current and estimated drift to jockey the ship over the designated mark at the right time.

“When science wants us to stay in one place, the bow thruster is crucial,” she says as she watches the boat’s progress on an electronic chart display. In a moment, she’ll use the bow thruster to bring the ship to starboard, putting the wind on her port side. Her goal: to drift right over the mark a half mile away and to keep the ship from colliding with priceless research gear. 

The dynamics are similar when the crew deploys the plankton imager ISIIS —  a camera sled that sends back photos of sea life at varying depths, helping researchers to understand what life forms are where, how they’re distributed and what they’re up to.

Then there is the CTD device, measuring conductivity, temperature and density, but also equipped with multiple cameras and an array of canisters that trap water from different depths. It yields up dripping samples of microbes whose study helps scientists like Portland State University’s Melissa Steinman map life at its most basic level. Another lightweight net called the Neuston samples the surface, bringing back fish eggs, larval fish, jellies and more, helping Oregon State University graduate student Megan Wilson to understand the traits in larval cabezon that lead to greater chances of survival of these spiny reef-dwellers.

An entire laboratory and supporting software and microscopes is arranged off the deck, complemented by a wet lab where buckets of samples are taken from nets and processed for study.

The ocean’s lower food web is crucial to life on earth. Its individuals often escape the naked eye, but its accumulated mass is staggering. A mosaic whose complexity we are only beginning to grasp, it holds the key to understanding what makes the ocean tick. As OSU graduate student Will Fennie puts it: “We need to understand it now so we know what our effects are in the future.”

Precise, high stakes work with little room for error — it’s an everyday drill. And the right equipment is critical.


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