Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
2010 SouthernExpedition

Day 2 – Still on the mound
July 23, 2010

Latitude N 33° 47.944’
Longitude W 118° 38.852’

The weather has been foggy and cloudy; perfect for flat, calm seas, for which we are all thankful. The team is in good spirits as we began the first day of ‘running’ the Deep Environmental Sample Processor (D-ESP).

Loading the  Deep ESP onto the Western Flyer
Figure 1: Loading the Deep Environmental Sample Processor onto the R/V Western Flyer

The D-ESP is a robotic microbiology laboratory that we have deployed in the methane-rich waters around a calcium carbonate ‘mound’ about 20 kilometers due west of Santa Monica. Our goal is to better understand the microbiology of this unique environment.

the dropweight system
Figure 2: The iron drop weight and mechanism designed by Doug Pargett.

Since the D-ESP is so large and ungainly, we built a frame that holds the large pressure housing and other instruments. This frame, called an ‘elevator’, is dropped over the side of the ship and free-falls to the ocean bottom. The elevator carries a drop weight that can be released via acoustic signals from the surface (Figure 2).  When this weight is released, the entire package becomes positively buoyant and floats to the surface. An ROV then gathers up the drop weight, and we recover the elevator floating at the surface. We will not be releasing the D-ESP drop-weight until Monday mid-day.

The plug - connection between the ROV and the D-ESP
Figure 3a: An image of the D-ESP plug
image of D-ESP connection to ROV
Figure 3b: We can plug the D-ESP into the ROV for charging batteries and instant communications with the computer

Last night our software wizard Brent Roman devised a work-around for a pump malfunction in the part of our instrument that depressurizes water before it’s introduced to the core ESP within the ball. Earlier, we had devised a plug system (Figure 3) so that when an ROV was present, we could plug-in to it and speak to the D-ESP as though it were a computer down the hall. We waited until the ROV reached the D-ESP at around 7:30am and plugged in and sent the new software code down and tested. It worked! We then started our science mission. Last year we won the award for most boring ROV dive, and this year we did not disappoint!  Everything went smoothly and we stayed attached until 4pm, watching with increasing excitement as the D-ESP reached milestone after milestone in its program, while everyone else looked on and wondered when it would DO something. I guess watching the slow inhalation of water is just not that exciting…

Dr. Chris Preston working in the lab
Figure 4: Biologist extraordinaire, Dr. Chris Preston, largely responsible for the first deep ocean PCR ever performed.

By 4:00pm it was time to unplug and let the D-ESP continue on its own. By this time we had collected data from the very first polymerase chain reaction (PCR) run in the deep ocean. PCR is a technique for amplifying the DNA of organisms, and can be used to both identify and quantify organisms present. We collected some water in various ways as well as some sediment core samples for a more in depth analysis of the area around and off the mound.  

the alternative transducer used to communicate with the D-ESP
Figure 5a: The dunkin' ducer, used to communicate with the D-ESP, 800 meters below, shepherded by Mike Burczynski and Scott Jensen.
Launching the dunking 'ducer
Figure 5b: Bosum Dan Benvenuti (also known as "Benny") and First Mate George Gunther controlling the launch of the 'ducer'.

When there is no ROV present, we speak to the D-ESP acoustically, using a transducer mounted in the hull of the ship. As a back-up we have what we call a dunkin ‘ducer, which we lower from the ship (Figure 5). We wanted to test this in case something went wrong with the ROV, and we couldn’t use the hull transducer. With help from the crew, these tests went splendidly; there’s nothing quite as nice as querying your instrument how it’s doing, and hearing a long set of chirps coming back saying, “Fine”.
Today was a good day. Batted the entire team. Scored several runs.

—Jim Birch

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Leg 1

R/V Western Flyer

The R/V Western Flyer is a small water-plane area twin hull (SWATH) oceanographic research vessel measuring 35.6 meters long and 16.2 meters wide. It was designed and constructed for MBARI to serve as the support vessel for ROV operations. Her missions include the Monterey Bay as well as extended cruises to Hawaii, Gulf of California and the Pacific Northwest.

ROV Doc Ricketts

ROV Doc Ricketts is MBARI's next generation ROV. The system breaks new ground in providing an integrated unmanned submersible research platform, with many powerful features providing efficient, reliable and precise sampling and data collection in a wide range of missions.

Deep ESP

The ESP is a self-contained robotic laboratory that collects samples of seawater and tests these samples for different types of microorganisms, either their genetic material, such as DNA, or proteins they may secrete, such as toxins from a harmful algae bloom. Because of the immense pressure in the deep sea, MBARI's researchers had to build a special pressure housing to protect the delicate instrument. They also had to design and build an automated system to "depressurize" seawater before it could be introduced into the ESP.

CTD Rosette

A CTD rosette is a cylindrical frame holding a group of plastic water-sampling tubes. Attached to this frame are instruments for measuring water temperature and conductivity (salinity) at various depths. Also attached to the rosette are instruments for measuring parameters such as chlorophyll, nutrients, and particulate matter in the water. As the frame is lowered over the side of a ship, water samples are taken automatically at various depths. Then the frame is raised to the surface again.

Push cores

A push-core looks like a clear plastic tube with a rubber handle on one end. Just as its name implies, the push core is pushed down into loose sediment using ROV Tiburon's manipulator arm. As the sediment fills up the core, water exits out the top through one-way valves. When the core is pulled up again, these valves close, which (most of the time) keeps the sediment from sliding out of the core tube. When we bring these cores back to the surface, we typically look for living animals and organic material in the sediments.

 Research Team

chris scholinChris Scholin
President and CEO, MBARI

After earning his PhD in Biological Oceanography from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chris came to MBARI as a Postdoctoral Fellow. In 1994 he joined the MBARI staff as a Scientist with a focus on development and application of molecular probes for detection of a variety of waterborne microbes, in particular toxic and harmful algae. Working collaboratively with a team of engineers, his group pioneered development of the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP), an instrument that collects water samples autonomously, concentrates microorganisms and automates application of molecular probes to detect particular species and substances they produce. In November 2009, Chris was made MBARI's President/CEO.

jim birch Jim Birch
Director of SURF Center, MBARI

Jim joined MBARI as Instrumentation Lead Manager. He currently serves as Director of MBARI's Sensors: Underwater Research of the Future (SURF) Center. The theme for the center is the continued development, extension, and applications of the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP).

scott jensenScott Jensen
ESP Systems Lead Engineer, MBARI

doug pargett Doug Pargett
Deep-water Operations Lead Engineer, MBARI

brent romanBrent Roman
System Control Lead Engineer, MBARI

Brent has been playing with computers and control systems since the late 1970s. He wrote embedded control software for video tape editing while attending the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he earned a B.S. in Computer and Information Sciences in 1985. His main technical interests are computer operating systems, languages and feedback control systems. Brent wrote most of the custom software driving the current generation of the Environmental Sample Processor. He also enjoys sailing.

chris prestonChris Preston
Senior Research Technician, MBARI

bill usslerBill Ussler
Senior Research Specialist, MBARI

burczynskiMike Burczynski
Instrumentation Technician/ROV Pilot, MBARI

Mike has worked at MBARI for over 10 years in a variety of technician roles including Research Technician, Instrumentation Technician, Marine Operations Technician, and ROV Pilot. His current role combines all his previous experience in support of the Marine Operations Division. Mike's main task on this cruise will be to operate one of our CTD rosettes profilers on a hydrowire of the stern of the ship. As the instrument package is lowered through the water column, it will collect a variety of physical and chemical data from the array of sensors that are mounted on the rosette. The package will also collect water samples at specified depths that are brought back to the surface and analyzed in the ships lab by scientists.

Suni Shah
US Naval Research Laboratory

Suni is currently at the US Naval Research Laboratory but soon to be a NOSAMS postdoctoral scholar at WHOI. Her main goal on this cruise is to operate and maintain the in situ mass spectrometer (ISMS) that will be deployed with the D-ESP. The ISMS was developed by Peter Girguis, a former MBARI scientist who was on her doctoral committee at Harvard University in 2008. It will detect dissolved gases in seawater, like methane and hydrogen sulfide.