2009 Pacific Northwest Expedition

Leg 3 Logbook - Gas Hydrates
Day 11 — Behind the scenes on the Western Flyer
August 12, 2009

Latitude 47 degrees N
Longitude 125 W

We’re cruising southward today at about 10 knots, with a smooth sea and light winds. Aside from the spitting rain, it’s a pretty nice day to be at sea in the Pacific Northwest. Of course, on a research boat, as on any working vessel, the work goes on, morning and evening, rain or shine. With this in mind, I would like to dedicate this log entry to the guys who keep the research vessel Western Flyer and the ROV Doc Ricketts running day in and day out.

I’ll start with the ROV pilots, those guys who not only fly the multi-ton, elephantine robot through the water with the dexterity of a ballet dancer, but who also keep the beast running, despite mud, muck, and a variety of hard use and hard knocks (some self-inflicted). A hard-working bunch, they remind me of the guys in the movie “Top Gun.” But the guys in the movie didn’t have science and engineering degrees. And they didn’t have to repair their own aircraft using duct tape, aluminum stock, and any other parts at hand.

The guys who pilot, maintain, and repair the ROV Doc Ricketts are a unique crew with a strong esprit-de-corps. Their mascot is a pink flamingo with a mohawk. Top row: Bryan Schaefer, Randy Prickett, Mark Talkovic. Bottom Row: Bernard Roth, Eric Nielsen

Next, there’s the engineering crew—the guys we don’t see very often because they’re down in the dark bowels of the ship, keeping her afloat and moving agilely through the water. These guys are truly the unsung heroes of the expedition, dealing with cranky diesel engines, midnight plumbing leaks, and broken coffee machines (all equally threatening to the success of a research cruise). Their overalls may be dirty at times, but their attitude is nothing short of amazing.

Then there are the guys on deck. Like Master Brian Ackerman, these guys are understated but totally on top of things. Keeping watch on the bridge, minding the lines and the winches, keeping the vessel on a steady course and in seagoing condition, they’re part of a seagoing tradition that dates back to the time of the Phoenicians. It’s because of these guys that we can all sleep soundly at night (most of the time).

Brian Ackerman, the master of the Western Flyer, stands watch on the bridge as we head into Newport Harbor at the end of our cruise.

Finally, there’s Patrick Mitts, the steward, who plans and prepares great meals for two dozen people three times a day, using ingredients purchased weeks or months in advance. They say an army marches on its stomach. I would say that morale on board a research vessel is directly proportional to the quality of its cook. The Western Flyer is a pretty happy boat most days, thanks to a healthy coefficient of gastronomic satisfaction.

Patrick Mitts keeps us all well fed and still has all of his fingers, despite years of working as a professional chef (as well as a geologist).

In closing out this series of logs, I would like to thank, first of all, Charlie Paull, for giving me the opportunity to go on this cruise, as well as the time (a precious thing on a research cruise) to write these logs. He’s a creative scientist and a fantastic guy to work with. I would also like to thank the other members of the science crew, who, despite never having met each other before this cruise, worked together as a willing team, and shared both the exhilaration and the exhaustion of 10 days at sea. Finally, I would like to thank the crew of the Western Flyer and the ROV pilots for making this a safe and productive cruise. We couldn’t have done it without you guys!

And thanks, finally, to all the family, friends, and students out there reading this log. Don’t forget to tune in next week for David Clague’s cruise. He’ll be exploring underwater volcanoes and hydrothermal vents!

Our enthusiastic science crew stands before the ROV Doc Ricketts. From left to right we are Bill Ussler, Michael Riedel, Laura Lapham, Mary McGann, Charlie Paull, Craig Joseph, Yirang Cho, Tess Menotti, and Kim Fulton-Bennett.

With a new group of researchers coming on board the Western Flyer on Sunday, we spend much of today cleaning up the labs on board the ship.

—Kim Fulton-Bennett

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Leg 3

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.

R/V Zephyr

R/V Zephyr is the primary support vessel for MBARI's autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) program. This 26-meter vessel is also used to maintain environmental moorings, collect time-series data along the California Current, and support scuba divers as they study near-shore habitats.

AUV D.Allan.B.

The MBARI Mapping AUV is a torpedo-shaped vehicle equipped with four mapping sonars that operate simultaneously during a mission. The multibeam sonar produces high-resolution bathymetry (analogous to topography on land), the sidescan sonars produce imagery based on the intensity of the sound energy's reflections, and the subbottom profiler penetrates sediments on the seafloor, allowing the detection of layers within the sediments, faults, and depth to the basement rock.

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.

Benthic elevator

The benthic elevator allows us to carry more than the ROV itself can carry. Loaded with sediment enrichers, it is deployed from the ship before the dive and free-falls to the bottom where the ROV pulls the equipment from the elevator for use. After the ROV is recovered, the elevator anchor's acoustic release is triggered from the ship, and the elevator freely ascends to the surface and is recovered.

Niskin bottles

Niskin bottles are used to collect water samples as well as the tiny bacteria and plankton in the water. The caps at both ends are open until the bottles are tripped, when the caps snap closed.

Heat flow probe

Held by the ROV's manipulator, the wire on the right is placed into the fluid emitted from a hydrothermal vent to record the temperature.

 Research Team

Charlie Paull
Senior Scientist, MBARI

Charlie Paull has been a marine geologist and geochemical stratigrapher at MBARI since January 1999. The central theme of Charlie's work involves investigating the fluxes of fluids and gases through continental margins. Over the past decade his primary focus has been gas hydrate research on the Blake Ridge gas hydrate field on the continental rise off of southeastern North America. Assessing the global distribution of gas hydrate and interstitial gas is a continuing interest as well as the development of new techniques to detect the presence of gas hydrate in marine sediments. Charlie's other ongoing work is focused on the geology associated with seafloor seepage sites, including investigating the deposits associated with chemosynthetic communities, determining the processes that occur at the methane-sulfate boundary, and understanding the origin of pockmarks and other potential seafloor fluid venting sites.

Bill Ussler
Senior Research Specialist, MBARI

During expeditions, Bill Ussler is primarily responsibility for the operation of the custom-built, portable chemistry lab van which contains a complete analytical laboratory for the analysis of the fluids and gases contained in marine sediments. Along with colleague Charlie Paull, Bill studies how methane (natural gas) forms and moves within seafloor sediments.

Michael Riedel
Research Scientist
Natural Resources Canada - Geological Survey of Canada

Michael Riedel was part of an international team of scientists supported by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) which completed a unique research expedition in 2005 aimed at recovering samples of gas hydrate, an ice-like substance hidden beneath the seafloor off Canada's western coast. As IODP Expedition 311's co-chief scientist, Michael explored his interest in gas hydrate; he believes such deposits have played an important role in ancient global climate change.

Ross Chapman
Professor, University of Victoria

Ross's research interests are in seismo-acoustic propagation, with specific application to the study of marine gas hydrates, and development and application of acoustic inverse methods for estimation of geophysical properties of the ocean bottom and for source localization. (Note: At the last minute Ross was unable to participate in the cruise, although he did attend the initial science meeting before the ship left the dock.)

Mary McGann
Geologist, United States Geological Survey

As a member of the USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Program, Mary McGann's professional interests include: foraminiferal and pollen biostratigraphy, paleoecology and biogeography; sedimentary paleoenvironment mapping, quaternary paleoclimatology; and AMS C-14 chronostratigraphy.

Laura Lapham
Postdoctoral Researcher, National Energy Technology Lab, U.S. Department of Energy

Laura's research is concentrated on studying methane cycling at cold seeps, biogeochemcial cycling of methane and sulfer in deep sea sediments, development of deep sea instrumentation to collect novel samples, stable isotope geochemistry, modeling of biogeochemical processes and temporal variability of dissolved methane concentrations. The focus of her research has been mainly on gas hydrate environments, but she is also interested in other systems that relate to the carbon cycle. Her research seeks to understand how methane is distributed between different pools, e.g. dissolved or hydrate phases, and also to understand how local biogeochemical processes affect this methane, mostly through anaerobic methane oxidation.

Kim Fulton-Bennett
Communications Associate, MBARI

Kim helps people outside of the institute to understand MBARI's research and development efforts. He does this by writing news releases and articles about MBARI research, as well as by helping members of the press who want to write their own articles or create video stories about MBARI. His academic background is in marine geology, environmental planning, and science writing.

Yirang Cho
Student, University of California, Davis

Yirang is an undergraduate at UC Davis in Environmental Studies and Ecological Engineering. She is an exchange student from Korea University who is interested in methane hydrates as an alternative energy source and in the ecological communities around methane seeps. She is very happy to have the opportunity to go on this cruise.

Tess Menotti
Graduate Student, Stanford University


Craig Joseph
US Department of Energy
Graduate Student, Oregon State University