University of South Florida

USF College of Marine Science


Ocean research cruise trains tomorrow’s marine scientists through hands-on fieldwork

Organized by researchers at the USF College of Marine Science, the Collaborative Oceanographic Research & Education (CORE) cruise gave students from the USF St. Petersburg campus and St. Petersburg College the opportunity to apply their skills aboard a five-day cruise on the Florida Institute of Oceanography’s R/V Weatherbird II.  

By Sophie Theiss, USF graduate student in Digital Journalism and Design

Chatter fills the salty air and waves slosh against the bow of the Research Vessel Weatherbird II. It’s an early morning in September. The caffeine hasn’t hit at full force, but excitement rises with the hot Florida sun as the ship exits St. Petersburg’s Bayboro Harbor. Crew members raise their voices to be heard over the engine.

On board is a mix of faculty, staff, and students from USF St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg College (SPC), embarking on an interdisciplinary cruise for the newly established Collaborative Oceanographic Research and Education (CORE) program organized by the USF College of Marine Science (CMS). I’m joining to document the experience as a graduate journalism student.

The CORE cruise is a unique opportunity for the thirteen USF and SPC students who will call this ship home for five days. The program aims to provide experiential learning through interdisciplinary science. Although officially a mooring expedition, this inaugural CORE cruise incorporates elements of physical, biological, geological, and chemical oceanography. Future iterations may include different disciplines focusing on student development.

Lifebuoy hangs on the ship wall of the R/V Weatherbird II. Photo: Sophie Theiss.

Lifebuoy hangs on the ship wall of the R/V Weatherbird II. Photo: Sophie Theiss.

“The CORE program aims to train the next generation of scientists through hands-on fieldwork,” says Jay Law, physical oceanographer at CMS and one of the cruise’s lead organizers. “This cruise gives students the opportunity to take what they’re learning in a lab or classroom and apply those skills and knowledge at sea, assisting on funded research projects. The combination of experiential learning, multi-institutional collaboration and interdisciplinary science at sea is quite unique and offers exciting possibilities.”

Diving deep into mooring and physical oceanography

Multiple times each year, the Ocean Circulation Lab at CMS deploys and recovers buoys moored to the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. With thick layers of sunscreen protecting the crew from the grueling Florida sun, they work to rig the buoy and prepare it for deployment. An A-frame rig towers overhead as it slowly moves the buoy into the water. Once released, the buoy’s anchor shoots off the boat with a resounding splash.

The sea is flat as glass, making it easier to hop on the buoy to install temperature, wind speed, humidity, and air pressure instruments. These devices help researchers monitor ocean and atmospheric conditions and contribute to hurricane tracking and forecasting.

Undergraduate students Sam D’Angelo (left), Grace Humphrey (middle), and graduate student Orion Witmer (right) aboard a buoy working on equipment. Photo: Sophie Theiss.

Undergraduate students Sam D’Angelo (left), Grace Humphrey (middle), and graduate student Orion Witmer (right) aboard a buoy working on equipment. Photo: Sophie Theiss.

Adorning a hardhat that reads “DECK BOSS,” Sam D’Angelo, a USF St. Petersburg undergraduate with six buoy deployments under her belt, leads the mooring deployments on the cruise as part of her advanced at-sea training. Equipped with her walkie talkie and “I <3 buoys” phone case, she says, “During Hurricane Ian, you could see the [air] pressure drop … It was super cool!”

Back in the comfort of the air-conditioned lab, Luis Sorinas, a PhD candidate at USF CMS, describes how his team works with the data collected by the buoy.

“We’ve been maintaining buoys continuously for the last 22 years,” Sorinas says. “So, we’re trying to look to see if there is any climate change [or] global warming signal in this area.”

In between mooring activities, scientific dive training occupies the boat deck. The CORE cruise includes a handful of dives to survey fish populations at natural and artificial reefs. Divers scribble on special whiteboards with charcoal pencils to document what they see.

One dive during the cruise is to retrieve a bottom mount device that rests on the ocean floor and measures important data on sea currents to help researchers better understand the ocean circulation of nutrients. Circulation effects can drastically change the ocean environment all the way up the food chain to us.

Numerous checks on air tanks, gauges, and other equipment ensure the safety of the scientific diving team before they go underwater. Visibility is often limited beneath the surface; touch is sometimes all divers can rely on. A weighted blanket of wetness surrounds them, and the knowledge of numerous safety checks gives them a sense of comfort.

: Dive team, Ben Meister, Jason Law, Mike Schram, Luis Sorinas, Grace Humphrey, and Orion Witmer, conduct a nighttime dive. Photos: Sophie Theiss.

Dive team, Ben Meister, Jason Law, Mike Schram, Luis Sorinas, Grace Humphrey, and Orion Witmer, conduct a nighttime dive. Photos: Sophie Theiss.

There is not much to see from the surface once the divers go under. However, that changes at night, as diver’s wear high-visibility glow sticks that allow them to be monitored from above. The light scatters beneath the surface and creates a mosaic akin to shimmery paint blended into an abyss.

Back inside the confines of the Weatherbird, a team of physical oceanographers are at work behind a door unassumingly marked “Electronics Room.” This team oversees a device called a CTD that attaches to a large metal frame called a rosette and measures numerous parameters such as conductivity, temperature, and depth.

The crew deploys the rosette at various locations along the ship’s route, which allows them to collect a wide range of data from multiple environments and gives scientists insight into the differences between each region. This is particularly important for the chemistry team collects water samples in conjunction with the CTD — one location may show a high concentration of a certain type of algae, whereas another may show a complete lack of it. 

A microscopic look at chemical and biological oceanography

A can of ginger ale in hand, Lilly Verrill, an undergraduate at USF St. Petersburg, points to a map of the Weatherbird’s route. “A lot of people don’t go out this far, so we don’t have a whole bunch of samples,” she says. “Because this is a nice, easy transect that … we’re hoping to maintain, it’ll be really interesting because we’ll be getting data from areas that a lot of people don’t regularly visit.”

Lilly Verrill (middle) explains the water sample collection process to Sam D'Angelo (left), Sam Elder (front-right), and Orion Witmer (back-right). Photo: Sophie Theiss.

Lilly Verrill (middle) explains the water sample collection process to Sam D'Angelo (left), Sam Elder (front-right), and Orion Witmer (back-right). Photo: Sophie Theiss.

Verrill, a biology major with a concentration in botany, oversees chemical sampling on the CORE cruise using bottles that are attached to the rosette. When the rosette is lowered into the ocean, the bottles have a mechanism that closes when an operator on the ship presses a button. This gives the team samples from the ocean’s surface, the area of maximum chlorophyll concentration (a measure of phytoplankton abundance), and the seafloor.

Collecting and testing samples comes second nature to Verrill, who spends three to five days each week in the chemistry lab on campus. Her experience helps her guide fellow students through water sampling.

Collecting these samples can help scientists identify significant changes in the coastal ocean ecosystem. One of the most prominent things they are looking for are traces of harmful algae blooms, such as red tide, which can kill marine animals and affect the respiratory system of humans.

Marine animals are of special concern to Linae Boehme, a professor of biology at SPC, who leads the biological component of the CORE cruise. Later, on the comfort of steady land, Boehme gives me insight into her role.

Boehme’s primary tool for biological sampling is a Bongo net that collects microscopic organisms such as phytoplankton in the water. Towed behind the boat, the Bongo net can reach a depth of 200 meters, or about 656 feet, and filters seawater into two containers, which allows Boehme to bring the water samples back inside the lab to look at under a microscope.

From there, she can identify critters in the water.

Boehme’s research interest is in the animals that eat phytoplankton, called zooplankton. Phytoplankton, which she calls “nature’s little Cheez-Its,” are “a link between … ocean circulation, chemistry and the tasty fish that we like to eat.”

Seen under a microscope, some of the creatures bounce around and others casually float within the water sample. Though they aren’t appealing snacks to humans, phytoplankton are a primary food source for many marine animals. They are small but mighty; their impact goes all the way up the food chain.

Returning to shore

The combined data collected by the physical, biological, chemical, and geological oceanography teams dure the CORE cruise will help shape our understanding of the ocean. Changes in ocean conditions impact the little critters that live within it. Those impacts in turn influence larger marine species. In dire circumstances, animals can struggle to adapt or die if conditions change too drastically. Even land animals — yes, including us — depend on the health of the ocean for survival. It all interconnects.

Oceanography offers different paths students can pursue. Luis Sorinas says “most of the job is still behind a computer, but 20 percent is [in the field] like this … You never get bored. When you’re tired of the computer this is great, and when you’re tired after a cruise, the computer, and the A/C sounds amazing.”

As the Weatherbird returns to the dock in St. Petersburg, I remember what Sam D’Angelo shared with me on the first day. She was looking forward to “seeing how this all plays out because it’s a brand-new cruise and we’re having a lot of new components.”

Back on land, discussions among the students and researchers reflect the accomplishments of this inaugural CORE cruise and highlight the enthusiasm for the program moving forward.

Editors’ note: This article and accompanying video were produced for the College of Marine Science by Sophie Theiss, and graduate student in the Digital Journalism and Design program at USF St. Petersburg, who interned with CMS during the Fall 2023 semester. Sophie’s story documents the inaugural cruise of the new Collaborative Oceanographic Research and Education (CORE) program offered by CMS and its partners. 

Special thanks to the Ocean Circulation Lab and its director, Yonggang Liu, for organizing the cruise and the Florida Institute of Oceanography, for R/V Weatherbird ship-time support.  

Thanks, too, to all the students, faculty, and staff from USF, St. Petersburg College, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Mote Marine Lab who participated in this exciting research trip and helped lay the foundation for future CORE expeditions.

-          Dyllan Furness, science communication manager, and Jay Law, physical oceanographer

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