March 23, 2002 – The research vessel Ronald H. Brown, the newest, largest ship in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fleet, was home for the better part of two weeks this month to a number of University of the Virgin Islands students and research staff.
The accommodations of the 274-foot research vessel read — and look — like those of a small cruise ship: 9 single staterooms, 25 double staterooms, food service seating capacity for 30, 4-bed hospital.
But this is a scientific center, not a floating hotel. The working facilities aboard include the main laboratory of more than1,700 square feet plus electronics/computer lab, wet lab, hydro lab, and biochemical lab.
Under the command of Capt. Don Dreves, the ship carries four commissioned officers, four engineers and 16 other crew members. Its personnel and equipment can accommodate 34 scientists and researchers.
The UVI student researchers aboard for this, the vessel's maiden Caribbean voyage, included Shenell Gordon, Linda Bailey Knoeck, Celeste Mosher, Leukemia Mounce, Briana Smith and Amandy Williams, all Anegada Climate Tracer Study voyage veterans; and UVI graduate Barry Volson, who as a fledgling marine science student first made his first trip aboard an ACTS research vessel in 1997 and on this voyage was a sampling team leader.
Also making the trip were four exchange students studying at UVI — Victoria Taibe, Sarah Bouknight, Clark Goebel and Jasmine Pierce; and two Planning and Natural Resources Department staff members, UVI marine science graduate Lincoln Critchley and Aaron Hutchins.
Most of the students have taken marine biology courses, do well in chemistry labs, are doing well enough overall in their courses that their professors are willing to release them to miss a few classes, and have the commitment and stamina to stay up all night monitoring coordinates and using research equipment at sea.
The students have been trained at UVI by Roy Watlington, principal investigator of the ACTS program, and by veteran students. They were supervised onboard the Ron H. Brown by W. Douglas Wilson, the chief NOAA scientist aboard; UVI team leader Kevin Brown and technical staff member Laurie Requa of the university's Center for Marine and Environmental Studies; and Volson.
(For commentary from Volson, a UVI graduate now in the doctoral program at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, on this cruise and the others he took with the ACTS program during his years at UVI, see the Source Op-Ed article "UVI grad praises opportunities, mentoring".)
The students worked with complex specialized equipment, pulled deep-water samples on a round-the-clock schedule, and continually amassed and analyzed data in the five onboard laboratories.
New research with new technology
UVI's purpose in the ACTS project, according to Watlington, is to study the exchange between the waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean of substances that give indications of global climate change. The project is conducted as a part of the Windward Islands Monitoring Project, a larger NOAA study under Wilson's direction.
This expedition also involved a resurveying of the submarine volcano called Kick `em Jenny, which was last charted by a NOAA-UVI team in 1996. The 2002 survey differed from the earlier one in that it utilized highly superior acoustic sounding equipment and resulted in unusually clear images. For this work, the UVI team was joined by vulcanologist Jan Lindsey of the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Unit in Trinidad.
In the course of the expedition, the team was also able to identify and map a pair of previously uncharted submarine volcanoes near Dominica, a find which clearly delighted Lindsey. "We call them seamounts," she said, "and they will be interesting to continue surveying."
Watlington expressed gratitude for the opportunity afforded UVI students and staff by being included as partners in a major NOAA expedition. "It's invaluable experience for our students to be there on the maiden voyage of this historic ship and participate in the discovery of new underwater volcanoes," he said in the release.
In the early years of the ACTS study, all samples had to be sealed and transported ashore, where the tired researchers then had to head for their labs to compile and analyze the data. Somebody would take photographs and rush off to have a film developed. Now even the students take laptops aboard, and a lot of the data are compiled during the voyage and burned onto CD's, and digital cameras provide instant images downloaded into computers.
For this year's UVI participation, two scientists and seven students flew to Barbados and boarded the ship there. They spent the next seven days gathering samples and compiling data as the Ron H. Brown headed north and then across the Anegada Passage before anchoring off Water Island to offload samples and data and change off some of the UVI crew.
The second leg of the trip was within waters off the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, with sampling in the area of the Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and Hispaniola and off St. Croix at what's known as the "Nubie Station." This is a neutron burst of very deep water from which ACTS personnel have been obtaining data for some time and thus plays an important in ongoing research.
Dreves and Wilson praised the UVI students. Wilson remarked that they relieved him of much of the technical work, according to a UVI release. On the second leg, which was nearly 38 hours in length, one energetic young researcher said he didn't sleep at all.
At the end of the second leg, the vessel docked in Crown Bay, where it remained for several days while the NOAA crew enjoyed shore leave. Last Tuesday, UVI hosted the captain and crew at a reception at Tickles Restaurant in Crown Bay to celebrate the 13th ACTS expedition, as well as the ship's maiden Caribbean voyage.
A resolution was presented from Watlington, who is now the chancellor of the UVI St. Thomas campus, declaring the ship "welcome in Virgin Islands waters at any time." Mugs, caps and other mementos were exchanged between ship's crew and UVI personnel. Crowning the exchange was the gift of a retired life preserver from the Ronald H. Brown signed by the captain, officers and UVI participants that will hang on Tickles' wall of marine memorabilia.
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