Valuable research time on the Point Sur is reduced.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
On a bright Thursday morning in November, two dozen crew, students and faculty board the R/V Point Sur at Moss Landing Harbor for a day cruise. The sun is shining, the harbor is still, and seagulls are basking on the roof of the nearby Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, looking like they’ve not yet decided whether it’s worth the trouble to fly today.
Over the next eight hours the Point Sur, a 135-foot research vessel owned by the National Science Foundation, will sail 13 miles into the Monterey Bay, crossing the bay’s celebrated deep-water canyon to gather samples of sea life at different depths. It will do this with no fancy remote-operated vehicles or high-tech gadgets. Most of its gear, save a prized piece of equipment called a Triaxus that can measure plumes and other three-dimensional physical events in the water, is basic stuff—nets, cables, a sturdy crane. It’s a hardworking, blue-collar vessel that’s been described as the pickup truck of the nation’s 24-strong scientific fleet. At dock it’s dwarfed by its dazzling neighbor, MBARI’s mighty Western Flyer. It’s not easy being a civil servant in a private-sector world.
And it’s getting harder. Most years the Point Sur sails 180 days, carrying students and scientists with NSF grants up and down the West Coast on research trips. But at an operating cost of $8,000-$13,000 per day, the Point Sur is only as mobile as the money is free to flow. Next year, the Point Sur’s cruise time will be reduced by a third, to 120 days.
The Pew Report recommended that the US double funding for oceans research. That hasn’t happened.
“Demand for the Point Sur waxes and wanes depending on the science being funded,” says Stuart Lamerdin, assistant marine superintendent at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML). “We didn’t have a lot of requests. It means it’s getting harder and harder for scientists to get their research funded.”
Three years ago the Pew Oceans Report recommended the US government double funding for oceans research. That hasn’t happened. NSF’s marine research budget has risen incrementally to its present level of $288 million.
Meanwhile, says Lamerdin, the Point Sur faces mounting fuel and health insurance costs, along with the burden of paying its crew enough to live in a costly area. That makes it spendier for scientists with already-limited research dollars. Lamerdin won’t come out and say it, but it’s crunch time for the Point Sur.
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The Point Sur is a boon to MLML, which serves as the marine research facility for seven California State University campuses. Very few undergraduates—especially from state schools—get to experience a research cruise, much less one or two a semester. And virtually nowhere else can they reach deep water so quickly.
“These kids get to have a day of their lives that they’ll never get anywhere else in the world,” says MLML professor Gregor Cailliet, who is chief scientist for today’s cruise. “In one hour you’re in 1,000 feet of water. On the east coast it’s 100 miles offshore to get to that depth.”
The day begins smoothly enough, with acting Captain John Klusmire and Second Mate Brad Martin backing the Point Sur out of her slip, doing a K-turn in the harbor and chugging out past Moss Landing’s resident troop of sea otters. The view from the bridge, three levels up from the deck, is spectacular.
A few minutes out of the harbor, the four-to-six-foot swells start to feel substantial. The half-dozen of us who will log significant time heaving over the side of the boat experience our first waves of nausea. The ship’s chef, Karen Close, administers ginger ale and saltines, which stave off the moment of reckoning but do not avert it. One student, famous for his seasickness, gives up and simply goes to sleep.
After a half-hour the ship slows to a crawl. Technicians Ben Jokinen and Jack Lavariega lower a fine-meshed net into the water to gather animals from the top 600 feet of the water column for the benefit of the invertebrates class. There is a hubbub when Jokinen and Lavariega haul the net up and deposit its contents into small tubs for the students to examine. Most of the creatures are small and translucent—jellyfish and crustaceans.
It’s a testament to the abundance and mystery of the sea that every cruise brings up something new. In this case the novel critter is a small hydroid, which is related to sea anemones and jellyfish. Only these specimens are affixed not to rocks as would be expected, but to the heads of shrimp.
“It’s like a stinging wig!” says Chad Widmer, a Monterey Bay Aquarium aquarist who is on board with a cooler to gather jellyfish.
The ship heads to a deeper spot, where it lowers a net 3,000 feet to collect deep-water organisms. These animals are mostly red and black, the color of choice for the dark deep-sea environment. They’re either strangely beautiful, like the feathery crimson shrimp, or hideous, like the wormlike creature with the permanently gaping mouth.
The ship makes one last stop to gather a sample from the ocean floor 2,000 feet down. The scoop yields sponges, sea urchins, sea stars and dover sole. Then the wind picks up, and the Point Sur heads back to the harbor through afternoon whitecaps.