Early Ocean Research
SEA’s Annual Report, published in December, 1972, noted that during the previous year, “24 research projects were undertaken for scientists from 15 different institutions. Six Visiting Research Fellows sailed with us and supplemented the teaching and data collection efforts of our own resident scientist with their own special interests and projects.”
The “Scuttlebutt #5” Newsletter, published in January, 1973, described the research conducted aboard the Westward en route from Lisbon to Puerto Rico: “Our scientific work on the crossing consisted of 34 plankton tows, spaced 60 miles apart, roughly along the 12th parallel. The tows were done with a double net with fiberglass frame and 100 lb. weights attached, along with two flow meters and a bathythermograph to determine how well the nets had fished.”
“General Information for Prospective Apprentices,” a document written in the early ‘70s, identified examples of early SEA oceanographic research: “Collecting Biological Specimens via middle-depth dredging, tide-line exploration, skin diving, trawling, etc…. Study of Submarine Topography via recording fathometer and careful navigation… Study of Water Circulation and Distribution using Nansen bottles, bathythermograph, etc…. Collecting, Recording and Reporting Meteorological Information…” and “Work with Underwater Sound.”
Association with Boston University
Perhaps one of the most important events in the evolution of ocean research at SEA occurred when Dr. George Fulton, chairman of the Boston University biology department, became interested. He proposed that BU give academic credits for SEA’s program. The name “SEA Semester” was born.
After SEA entered into an agreement with BU in 1974, the program evolved to include a shore component. According to an early SEA Semester proposal, students would receive instruction in “marine and nautical sciences and oceanic law and literature” on shore followed by “training as an apprentice seaman/oceanographic technician aboard a research vessel.”
Despite the real interest in studying the ocean, when Susan Humphris joined SEA as a staff scientist in 1979, scientific research, she said, was still “primitive.”
She recalls that students used mostly surplus or cast-off equipment from other organizations including an assortment of nets to collect biological samples from the ocean, very old Nansen bottles to collect water, and a clam dredge grab to collect sediment. There was just a small lab on the ship that held microscopes, a fluorometer for measuring chlorophyll, and a titration instrument to measure oxygen.
Research was limited by the ship’s hydrowinch, which was used to lower equipment over the side, explains Humphris. The Westward’s winch used ¼-inch wire, and couldn’t undertake heavy operations, such as rock dredging. That limitation largely restricted research to the ocean’s water column.
“SEA became very good at collecting samples on the surface of the ocean, leading to the long-term studies of ocean plastics and the water strider Halobates” remembers Humphris. “During that time… we tried really hard to improve the science … we had to somehow ensure the academic rigor of the program if students were going to get university credit.”