Conducting research at sea: challenges, solutions and jury-rigging – Abigail Bockus

Even after months of preparation and meticulous planning, likelihood is a research cruise isn’t going to go exactly as planned. And sure enough, every scientist on the R/V Kilo Moana had their own stories of previous shipment delays, gear malfunctions, or (worst of all) the time that prized piece of equipment sank to the ocean floor. Whatever the situation, research at sea poses the unique challenge of being out of sight and out of reach of even the closest Home Depot.

This requires oceanographers to apply their creativity not only to their research but sometimes to their jury-rigging skills as well. This cruise was no exception. Albeit a far cry from the disaster of losing a multimillion dollar piece of equipment, on day seven of our ten-day research cruise the zooplankton team (ahem… my team) lost a piece of our MOCNESS net during an overnight tow. Specifically, one of our ten nets came up without its cod end – the end piece that collects the animals being trapped by the net. Whether this was due to user-error or just bad luck, we found ourselves missing an essential item for our science operation. Scavenging a mis-sized cod end from a smaller surface net, and some appropriately sized mesh lining, we retrofitted a solution using more duct tape than I’d like to admit. Thankfully, our makeshift net lasted through the end of the cruise and we were able to complete three more invaluable 6-hour tows.

After basking in the glory of our little MacGyver moment, I looked around the ship and noticed that the scientists and crew were finding innovative uses for all kinds of household items. One scientist had fashioned plastic sheets into a semi-enclosed “bubble” or clean space for work on trace metals, sensitive sampling that can be effected by the introduction of small particles of dust or other contaminants. Another had built her own water filtration system with some PVC pipes and impressive carpentry. Even the crew had put recyclables to good use, reusing an old water bottle as a protective sheath for an atmospheric CO2 intake port / meter. Not to mention the countless examples of tie downs, string ups and other temporary supports holding our scientific equipment in place against the rocking of the ship.

I guess the take away is – in oceanography, impressive ideas are sometimes supported by even more impressive means… just don’t forget the duct tape.