TAMPA — They are the vital signs of a body of water such as Tampa Bay.
Oxygen content. Alkalinity. Concentrations of silicate, trace metals, nitrate, phosphate and chlorophyll.
Marine scientists monitor those characteristics regularly. But it takes a lot more than dipping a cup into the water or shoveling up a little sediment to gauge the health of the sea.
Last week, students from Eckerd College got first-hand experience in water sampling aboard the R/V Bellows, a 71-foot research vessel operated by the Florida Institute of Oceanography.
They drew water out of Tampa Bay from the mouth of the Alafia River to the Sunshine Skyway, securing samples in the onboard laboratory while taking sediment from the sea floor and examining a cross-section of aquatic life brought to the surface.
“You sit in a classroom and you learn about all this stuff, but then to actually be out here and do all the different tests, see what all the equipment is about, and actually work with people who do this for a living, it makes you think, ‘Maybe this is what I could do after I get a degree,’” said Kristina Petraites, a senior majoring in marine science. “That’s what I like about it — it makes you feel like you’re really a part of the scientific community.”
Students learned to operate tools such as a CTD/Rosette water sampler and Shipek grab sampler. They learned standard scientific procedures for preparing samples for lab work, which they will conduct over the next several weeks.
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It’s more complicated than it seems. Water samples are handled differently depending on what they are being tested for; a procedure may call for filtering the water in one of several different ways, adding reagents or, in the case of the oxygen test, something as simple as making sure the sample is free of bubbles.
“They are learning the process of being a marine scientist,” said David Hastings, a professor of marine science and chemistry at Eckerd. The students were in his Chemical and Physical Oceanography course.
“This is a great opportunity,” Hastings said. “This is one of the things that distinguishes Eckerd College from other marine science programs. When they get out, they’ve been on a research vessel. That’s a pretty unusual opportunity.”
That was seconded by Sara Mack, a junior marine science major. “It’s really awesome that they want to prepare you for what you would do after school and expose you to all this — being on a ship, using this equipment,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of this in the lab, so now we can apply it. It’s like this is what we will be doing in real life.”
Most academic research on the Bellows and its larger sister ship, the R/V Weatherbird II, is conducted by graduate students or faculty.
There’s another relatively rare opportunity for Eckerd’s undergraduates — part of their project, looking into microplastics in Tampa Bay, could lead to publishable research.
“We’re just beginning to understand the magnitude of the amount of plastic in the ocean. There is stuff we can see,” Hastings said, gesturing with his own water bottle, “the garbage patch in the Pacific.
“With large pieces of plastic, animals and seabirds might be affected, but with small pieces of plastic, we get different microbial communities, different bacteria that are associated with these,” he said.
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Eckerd is able to book the ship time as a member of the Florida Institute of Oceanography, a consortium of the state’s public universities, a few private schools and other state agencies. Hastings applied for the project and a grant to help pay for it; the Bellows’ standard rate is $5,500 a day.
The vessel took four shifts of about a dozen Eckerd students each over two days last week, emphasizing what Hastings described as Eckerd’s multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary approach to marine science. The shifts typically ended with what he called the “kiddie pool extravaganza,” the living contents of a net dragged behind the vessel dumped out for examination.
Forget the “eww” factor. The budding marine scientists dug into the pool with both hands, passing back and forth sea stars, urchins, a seahorse, a tiny squid, crabs, a bat fish, a puffer fish and the more common pinfish.
It beat sitting in a classroom.
CJ McGuigan worked on a charter fishing boat during high school in Maryland and developed a love for the sea that led him to his current field of study.
“For most people, I think this is where they want to be,” said McGuigan, a senior marine science major. “Most people have some experience with the ocean before they decide to come to Eckerd and study marine science. It’s a nice return to my roots. I’m comfortable out here, and I like it.”