During the last two years, a team of researchers and technicians from BIOS have worked diligently alongside crew of the BIOS-operated research vessel Atlantic Explorer to maintain near-continued operations throughout the pandemic.
“One of the most valuable things we have accomplished as a team, along with the ship’s crew, has been to help keep the time series going despite the pandemic’s circumstances,” said Claire Medley, a research technician who participates on monthly research cruises led by BIOS principal investigators Nicholas Bates and Rod Johnson. Ocean time series are sustained, long-term studies that help scientists characterize and monitor changes in marine ecosystems. At BIOS, the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study, commonly known as BATS, has made physical, biological, and chemical oceanographic measurements in the open ocean off Bermuda for more than a quarter of a century.
Once or twice each month, researchers and technicians on board Atlantic Explorer head 50 miles (82 kilometers) southeast of Bermuda in the Sargasso Sea, where they collect data on water column properties, including temperature, dissolved oxygen, and salinity, as well as bacterial production and zooplankton abundance and distribution. Their data, available to the wider oceanographic community, also sheds light on the transport and cycling of organic carbon, phosphorus, and nitrogen.
Medley began work at BIOS as a research technician for BATS in August 2019, after finishing her graduate degree in physical oceanography from Bangor University and an undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of Bath. “The position perfectly combined my skills and interests from my two degrees and I was lucky enough to get the job,” she said.
Once at BIOS, she met fellow research technicians Zac Anderson, Emily Davey, Matt Enright, Rebecca Garley, Matt Hayden, and Paul Lethaby, and was joined shortly after by Dominic Smith and this summer by Rebecca May. In August 2020, Ella Cedarhom and Lydia Sgouros joined the BIOS ship operations department as marine technicians working along with colleague Rory O’Connell to complete the current line-up of ship board teammates. Marine technicians act as liaisons between the ship’s crew and the science party on board, as well as operate and maintain onboard science equipment that is crucial to carrying out various scientific missions.
A “well-oiled machine”
The ongoing nature of a time series, which can require 12-hour work days, means that the same operations and sampling are performed by team members on each research cruise. “After many months of working together, we are now a well-oiled machine,” Medley said. One example of their collaboration that she notes is a necessary yet somewhat tedious job: bottle washing.
At the end of every research cruise, team members wash the large-volume bottles used for filtering samples, which involves several rinsing stages. “It’s quite a repetitive job that could be boring,” she said, “but we have honed the technique now to make it as fast and efficient as possible so it’s kind of like a game between us that makes it more fun.”
And while all good friends who enjoy time together in and outside of work, there is still a high level of respect for their tasks. “We recognize the need to focus on the job at hand and complete it successfully and safely,” she said. Medley is especially adept at keeping morale high, said Zac Anderson, who joined BIOS after graduating with a master’s degree in oceanography from the University of Southampton in 2017. “Claire sometimes writes little messages on sample bottles during cruise prep if she isn’t going out to sea on a particular cruise so that we find the messages and laugh at sea,” he said. “And sometimes she hides chocolate and biscuits for us.”
Personnel with ship operations and the BATS program (along with a second BIOS-hosted time series program, Hydrostation ‘S’) share a decades-long history, said BIOS marine superintendent Quentin Lewis. Since Atlantic Explorer arrived at BIOS in 2006, this relationship has grown even stronger, he said.
In 2020, the relationship was tested with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which initially required a ship operations shutdown and ongoing safety precautions. The ship was originally scheduled and funded for 171 operating days, with 120 days at sea in support of BATS and Hydrostation ‘S’, and 51 days supporting six other users.
By the end of the year, the ship completed 131 days, more than 76 percent of its original work, and one of the highest averages in the fleet of University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System vessels for 2020. BATS and Hydrostation ‘S’ accounted for 87 percent of those completed operating days, and 67 percent of the days completed from the original schedule.
By working closely with the BATS program, ship operations completed safe quarantines, virus testing, and operating protocols and worked out an operating schedule that allowed for the completion of science cruises, Lewis said.
“This is a readily-identifiable testament to what ship operations and BATS are able to accomplish, even under the most adverse of conditions,” he said.
BATS co-principal investigator Rod Johnson has sailed on the majority of the time-series cruises since the pandemic began. He said that during more than 33 years of working on BATS and Hydrostation ‘S’ that “this was the most telling and difficult period these ocean programs have encountered.”
The continual quarantine, testing, travel delays, cruise mobilization and demobilization, and working on the ship with social distancing protocols has been taxing. “But successfully achieving the cruises one at a time was hugely rewarding, given the inspiring and collective efforts with the immediate BATS and BIOS marine department teams, and logistical support from other BIOS departments,” he said.
Emily Davey, who arrived at BIOS in January 2019 as a sea-going technician and nutrient analyst, agrees. “I feel proud to be part of a team that has maintained a positive and determined attitude throughout, which has helped us to achieve our sampling goals,” she said, adding that optimism of the crew and marine techs helps to make the ship a cheerful environment.
“We also appreciate the huge effort that has gone on behind the scenes by the marine team and BATS principal investigators to keep everything running as smoothly as possible despite this ever-changing situation.”