Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
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Behind the scenes - 2014

Links to past and present "Behind-the-scenes" stories:     2014    2013    2012


A new way to retrieve data from AUVs

As their name implies, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) navigate through the ocean on their own. In situ sensors on the AUVs measure physical characteristics (such as temperature and salinity) that are useful for scientists. But how and when do MBARI scientists access these data from AUVs? Dorado must be recovered after its missions and brought back onto the ship before its data can be uploaded. Tethys, a long-range AUV, can send information when it surfaces but the data are highly compressed.

MBARI’s engineering team understood the scientists’ dependence on real-time data during field experiments so they looked to the Wave Glider, a commercially manufactured instrument, to alleviate data-retrieval issues. Software Engineer Brian Kieft and his team used the Wave Glider to rendezvous with an AUV and serve as a hotspot to better communicate live data to scientists onshore. Last Friday, the team recovered the Wave Glider hotspot after a successful mission. The hotspot transferred high-resolution data from a long-range AUV and buried seafloor instruments (called Benthic Event Detectors) to shore.

Image: Brian Kieft (left) and Liam Chaffey (right) positioned the Wave Glider hotspot before it was hoisted aboard the R/V Paragon with the help of Thom Maughan and Mark Chaffey (not shown).

—March 31, 2014


Increasing the longevity of the wave-power buoy

Beginning in 2009, a team of MBARI engineers (led by Andrew Hamilton) designed a wave-power buoy—an instrument that utilizes ocean waves to produce useable electricity (typically 300-400 Watts on average, depending on the weather). The power buoy (see graphic) has a surface float 2.5 meters across and a long tether connected to a large metal plate hanging in the water 30 meters below. A hydraulic generator is incorporated in the system, near the surface float. The power buoy will eventually provide oceanographic instruments with a more generous and accessible supply of electricity at sea. The engineering team has tested the instrument at sea numerous times and is currently working to improve its longevity. Mechanical Engineer Francois Cazenave explains, “We are designing a new submerged plate that will be more stable and will reduce the load on the tether in case of very large waves.” The longest deployment of the power buoy so far was for six weeks. The team is aiming for a six-month deployment, beginning in early summer 2014.

Image: In these 2013 photos, a team of MBARI engineers prepared the power buoy for deployment. The deployment went well overall, but after 25 days, the system failed due to wear. The engineering team is currently working on increasing the power buoy's longevity.

—March 26, 2014


Project Coordination and Compliance Specialist: Mandy Allen

For the past 12 years, Mandy Allen has provided vital support to MBARI by ensuring that the institute continues to operate smoothly. It’s no surprise that Mandy was asked by her supervisor a few years ago to present at a conference in Ireland to discuss her professional experience in obtaining permits for one of MBARI’s biggest accomplishments, the Monterey Accelerated Research System (MARS). Mandy secures the necessary environmental permits required of MBARI as a research facility in a national marine sanctuary.

Mandy also coordinates the internal proposal process. Every year, project managers submit proposals outlining the current status and future plans for their research. Mandy facilitates this process by setting deadlines, organizing meetings, collecting and compiling all materials, and communicating feedback from management to project teams.

On top of all this, Mandy provides invaluable support to multiple directors on special projects. When asked what her favorite aspect of her job is, she commented, “In addition to working with brilliant, fascinating people who do amazing things, I enjoy the fact that I do so many different things that no two days are ever the same.”

—March 19, 2014


Improving communications at sea

When MBARI researchers deployed an environmental sample processor (ESP) from a ship to collect and analyze water samples about 100 miles off the coast of Hawaii a few years ago, communications between the ship and ESP were very weak. Satellite phone communications were spotty and the direct radio link from the ship was reliable only when the ESP was within 400 meters. The ESP team spent precious time chasing the instrument in order to communicate with it.

Satellite phones, cellular phones, and direct radio links each present their challenges in this scenario, so Brent Roman, a software engineer at MBARI, thought “if only we could combine a kite with a balloon, we could keep a radio relay above the ship in any wind.” Brent began to build a device called Helikite that could act as a very low satellite tethered to a boat and communicate via radio to reach instruments five to 10 miles away. This extra range will allow ships to monitor multiple instruments without having to trail them. Brent recently tested the Helikite, without a radio, for its first flight onshore. It was a successful test—the Helikite flew for about an hour and reached up to 350 feet. The next shore-based test will include the first radio payload.

Image: Brent Roman conduct’s the first Helikite test flight on the beach just outside of MBARI in Moss Landing, California. The Helikite is filled with helium to generate lift.

—March 13, 2014

Bacteria cultivation near MARS site

Cultivating bacteria in the deep sea

Bill Ussler, a senior research specialist at MBARI, is investigating techniques for cultivating bacteria in the deep sea. Attempts to cultivate deep-sea bacteria in the laboratory have generally failed because most the bacteria do not survive the transit to the surface and it is difficult to create incubation systems that mimic the deep sea. Bill designed an in situ microbial incubation system to circumvent these problems. Gas permeable bags are hung on a fiberglass frame (shown here on the deck of the R/V Rachel Carson). Six months ago, the frame was sent down to the seafloor where the ROV Ventana filled the bags with seawater. Bill added nitrate to the water in the incubation frame’s bags, in hopes of stimulating growth of bacteria that use nitrate as an energy source. Because it is thought that deep-sea bacteria are slow-growing, this frame was left on the seafloor for half a year. This experiment is located near MBARI’s MARS cabled observatory in Monterey Bay. Bill plans to connect future incubation systems to the MARS cable so he can manipulate and monitor the experiment remotely in real time.

Image: Three weeks ago, Bill Ussler recovered the microbial incubation system from the seafloor near MBARI's MARS cabled observatory.

—February 24, 2014

Comb jellies named a top genome of 2013

Science News named comb jellies a top genome of 2013

Comb jellies were included in Science News’ list of top genomes of 2013. Last year, MBARI Scientist Steven Haddock was an author on a paper that highlighted these fascinating and wondrous creatures. In this study, researchers compared the genomes of organisms, including that of Mnemiopsis leidyi, a comb jelly native to the coastal waters of the western Atlantic Ocean. They found striking evidence that comb jellies rather than sponges are the sister lineage to all other animals. This is fascinating news to biologists since comb jellies possess muscle and nerve cells while sponges do not. These findings prompt a new way of thinking about animal evolution. A Science News article provides more detailed information about this study.

Image: After sequencing the genome of Mnemiopsis leidyi, researchers in this study compared its genomic data to other ctenophore species including this comb jelly, Bathyctena chuni.

—February 14, 2014

Chris Lovera Watch Program

MBARI staff mentor WATCH students

Students from Pajaro Valley High School participate in Monterey Bay Aquarium’s WATCH (Watsonville Area Teens Conserving Habitat) program. They conduct field experiments alongside scientists on environmental research projects they designed themselves. In a video by Eco Company, the students are at Elkhorn Slough to observe yellow shore crabs that they’ve collected in plastic and metal traps. They also conduct water-quality testing to check pH, dissolved oxygen, and salinity levels. MBARI researchers Chris Lovera, Linda Kuhnz, and George Matsumoto are among the researchers who work with the students. In the video, Lovera says, “They work hard to come up with a question that inspires them, that challenges them. It’s a very goal-oriented process and that’s really a life lesson—setting goals and achieving them.”

Image: Chris Lovera, left, and a student check a plastic trap that was placed underwater to collect specimens in the Slough.

—February 5, 2014

SEM microscope

Using a scanning electron microscope (SEM)

Seven MBARI geologists and biologists spent the day at nearby Moss Landing Marine Laboratories learning how to use a sophisticated instrument called a scanning electron microscope (SEM, top image). Unlike traditional microscopes that produce images using light, SEMs focus a beam of electrons on a sample. The electrons interact with the object to generate an image onto a connected computer screen. The image unveils information about the sample’s morphology and chemical composition. This information can be used to determine the composition of rocks or sediment or identify the species of an animal.

The bottom picture shows a practice image that reveals a tiny structure (25 microns) made of calcium carbonate from the body wall of a deep-sea animal called a holothurian, or sea cucumber.

—January 29, 2014

Flyer at shipyard

Western Flyer in shipyard for maintenance

The R/V Western Flyer, MBARI’s larger research vessel, has started the new year at a shipyard in northern California for maintenance. Among other repairs, the ship’s thruster motors require service and the motors’ housings need to be replaced. In order to easily remove the motors and their housings, the shipyard crew cut large access hatches in the underwater pontoons (see photo). Andrew McKee, the Flyer’s master, said that work is going well and progressing rapidly. The ship is set to return to Moss Landing in February.

Image: The Western Flyer was hauled out to dry dock at Bay Ship and Yacht in Alameda, California, for maintenance. In the bottom image, you can see one of the access hatches that were cut in the ship’s hulls to remove the thruster motors and their housings.

—January 17, 2014

sea butterfliesSea butterflies in Monterey Bay

Stephanie Bush, a postdoctoral fellow at MBARI, is studying the biodiversity of pteropods, also known as sea butterflies because they have wing-shaped membranes located on each side of their heads. The sea butterfly Corolla spectabilis can sometimes be found in large aggregations in Monterey Bay. The Monterey Abalone Company farms its product in barrels hanging below the Monterey Municipal Wharf, where it has collected pteropods swimming alongside the abalone for Stephanie. She will extract the pteropod DNA and compare it to that of others she has previously collected. Read more about Stephanie’s work with pteropods in our expedition logbook.

Image: Stephanie Bush uses a long pole with a cup attached to collect sea butterflies in the waters below the Monterey Municipal Wharf.

—January 13, 2014

Last updated: Apr. 01, 2014