Diary of a Drew University Student at Sea

Junior Hannah Primiano covers her oceanographic research

February 2021 – Drew University chemistry major Hannah Primiano C’22 is taking her research on the proverbial road. Or, rather, to the high seas.

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Primiano in port in Honolulu, HI.

A Baldwin Honors and Civic Scholar, Primiano spent her summer participating in a virtual undergraduate research program with the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, analyzing data and microscope images from home. She was later invited to join a research expedition to see where the data she analyzed actually came from.

She worked with Drew’s chemistry department to fit the opportunity into her academic schedule, and has since hopped aboard the research vessel. She’ll be providing updates about her time at sea so we can follow her journey.

February 4 – Introduction

The R/V Roger Revelle left port on December 26 from Honolulu, HI, to go on a 60-day journey to the Southern Ocean. Scientists from Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, Florida State University, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography came aboard to collect oceanographic data from multiple areas throughout the Pacific Ocean.

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The Honolulu skyline as the ship departs the day after Christmas.

We began by collecting various types of data on a straight line from 30°S to 60°S. We will now sample eddies, swirling masses of water, and other features in the Southern Ocean before the ship begins making its way toward our final destination of Tahiti.

While each lab is looking at something different, from trace metals to nutrients to plankton distribution, all of the data will combine to help us understand how phytoplankton are affecting the chemistry of the ocean.

Phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean can condition or change the water by taking up nutrients and carbon dioxide, making them critical for nutrient availability and the global carbon cycle. Because of their impact, we are collecting various types of data to deepen our understanding of these phytoplankton and the role they play in the ecosystem. If you have any questions, feel free to send them to hprimiano@drew.edu!

February 11 – Celebrations

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Researchers watch as the CTD is lowered into the water.

The Revelle traveled from Hawaii to 30°S to start collecting data. In the time it took to get to 30°S we celebrated Christmas and New Year’s. For Christmas, there was a white elephant gift exchange. On New Year’s Eve, we crossed over the international date line and, later that evening, the equator. Equator crossings are a big deal at sea, often involving games and challenges to “appease King Neptune” and ask him for safe passage into the other hemisphere.

The best celebration was 15 days into the trip. After five COVID tests, a 14-day hotel quarantine, and an additional 15 days of wearing masks on the ship, everyone was determined to be COVID-free, and we were allowed to roam about the ship without masks.

By this time, we had started collecting data. Data collection primarily comes from the rosette, a metal frame that carries big plastic bottles for collecting water. The rosette has sensors on it that collect data such as temperature, salinity, and density. We often call the whole rig the CTD, which stands for conductivity (salinity), temperature, and depth—three of the most important parameters for us to measure. We used a crane to lower it into the water.

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Waves penetrate the hangar, soaking the team checking the samples.

The CTD sensors transmit the data as the whole apparatus descends, allowing us to decide where best to trip the bottles. The water collected from the CTD is used to measure many different properties of the ocean. In my lab, the water is generally filtered, and the filters are stored to be analyzed when we get back on land.

Being at sea means that you always have to be prepared to get a little wet. When the weather is bad or waves crash over the side of the ship, we bring the CTD into a hangar, but it is always possible to get wet even in the hangar. One of the Scripps marine chemists found out in an unconventional way. This being her last cruise, we celebrated her last CTD sampling by dumping water from the deepest bottles on her like a football coach after the Super Bowl. It was a fitting send-off for someone who has spent so many years at sea!

February 26 – The Things We Saw

Our trip went from Hawaii to the heart of the Southern Ocean, one of the most remote places on Earth. At one point during our trip the closest human beings to us were the astronauts on board the International Space Station as it passed overhead during its orbit. Just because there aren’t humans out there doesn’t mean that there wasn’t plenty to see at sea.

Some highlights of the things we saw in the Southern Ocean:

Whales — The first time we saw a whale we were outside recovering one of our instruments, and a curious humpback approached our ship. People ran outside into freezing cold weather in whatever clothes they had on, including pajamas and flip flops. On a separate occasion, a whole pod of pilot whales swam off the port side.

Icebergs — The first of several icebergs we passed on our journey was just a stretch of white on the horizon and difficult to see. As we continued on, we got close enough to some that we could see the waves crashing on them.
Birds — For a place so far from land, it is very weird to imagine how many birds actually live out here. We saw multiple types, from small petrels and prions to huge wandering albatross, which have the largest wingspan of any bird. We passed the uninhabited Malden Island that is now a protected area for seabirds. At one point around this island, there were about a thousand birds circling over our ship!

Phytoplankton — We passed through a huge bloom of phytoplankton on the way out of the Southern Ocean. During our first pass through this area a month earlier, there were only a few phytoplankton, but on the way back our sensors were reading five or six times the levels that we had seen before. We were very excited to see this because it was exactly what we were looking for!

March 8 – The Process

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Researchers deploy the VPR.

The process of funding these types of cruises is long and difficult. The first proposal for this cruise was written in 2015 and was rejected. The second proposal, written in 2017, was eventually accepted. It included two cruises, the first of which was postponed due to ship engine problems, so they didn’t set sail until 2019. Now we are completing the last cruise six years after the original, rejected proposal!

Because it takes so long and is so difficult to get here — even without a pandemic — we are taking as many measurements as we can, which means that we have more instruments than just the CTD. In addition to collecting water from the CTD, we deployed several floats for SOCCOM and NOAA. These floats move up and down in the water column and send back all of the data that they’ve collected when they reach the surface.

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Big John in action.

We also used the VPR (video plankton recorder) to get images of plankton in the water. To collect water from the CTD the ship has to be stopped, but the VPR is towed behind the ship and can collect similar data to the CTD.

We also collected data on the levels of trace metals, such as iron and zinc, in the water. Since the ship itself is made out of metal it is almost impossible to collect water without contaminating it with metal from the ship. That’s where Big John comes in. Big John is a small, Teflon-coated plastic board that sails far enough away from the ship to avoid contamination and collects water through plastic tubing. Big John is a favorite on board simply because of how small and delicate he is compared to the big ocean.

While we are working around the clock with all the different instruments, there is still a lot of downtime over the course of two months. We have spent a lot of time hanging out and playing games. We have had a cribbage tournament, a ping pong tournament, a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, poker nights, and lots of other games that we invented ourselves. Our cribbage tournament ended with a massive upset – the captain lost to a newbie cribbage player. It was the talk of the ship for days!

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