Blog 11 – Incredible Memories

As this adventure ends I wonder if I will be the same person when I return to land. Will I miss the soothing rocking of the waves when I go to sleep? Or the deep blue color of the ocean where I find peacefulness when I stand on deck looking for whales? Will I miss the sense of belonging to the best group of scientists and crew that never cease to amaze me and teach me something new every day?

Will I leave a part of me in the Pacific Ocean and take a new me to the desert? Will I long to return or just hold on to my memories that I have made out here in the ocean?


The Pacific Ocean and me.

Those unforgettable memories include the day of my 38th birthday, when our net was covered in pyrosomes as it was coming out of the water. As a birthday present, a jar full of pyrosomes was set aside for my students. Or, on that same day, walking into the galley to find a huge cake baked by Mark, our head chef, with everyone singing happy birthday.


On my birthday holding a jar of zooplankton containing pyrosomes and salps. This jar was set aside for my students that I will take to my classroom.

Or the time Dr. Mark Ohman and I filmed the propellers of the ship underwater with a GoPro camera attached to a pole. Or the day he was pointing out and yelling with enthusiasm, identifying by name the organisms that would drift by in the water. Or the night I observed the recovery of the drifter with its attached experiments. It was one of the most beautiful nights, with an amazing group of scientists working in unison.


Holding the biggest pyrosome we came across during an Oozeki net tow.

I take these memories with me and so much more. I am grateful for the personal and professional experience. The knowledge that I have gained will be poured right to my students and shared with as many people as possible.


Our group photo the last day of the cruise.

Thank you to all the oceanographers on this CCE-LTER cruise, thank you to all the crew, and thank you to Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the National Science Foundation for this incredible opportunity.

Blog 10 – Copepods

I never imagined that I could find so many similarities between the ocean and the desert. They both bring me a great amount of happiness and serenity. They are open and seem so endless. They are both immensely beautiful. And… they have copepods!

Copepods are incredible crustaceans adaptable to many living conditions. They are small, yet visible with the naked eye. They move fast and most are transparent. Their first pair of antennae are long and curved like a smooth elongated “S.” Sensitive receptors are at the end of these antennae which enable the copepods to detect changes in flow and in chemical changes. Their bodies have a cylindrical shape and most have a rapidly beating heart!

Copepods are found all around the world wherever water is present. There are copepods living in the Salton Sea near the Imperial Valley desert. Just recently, a new species was discovered living in a single pond in the Chihuahuan Desert in Northern Mexico!


Copepod found in one of our net tows.

With more than 13,000 species, mostly living in marine waters, copepods are the most abundant animals living in the ocean away from the seafloor.


Maxillipeds help copepods in feedings. These look like beautiful feathers. Photographed by Dr. Rasmus Swalethorp.

In our cruise we have experts studying copepod population growth of three species found in the California Current. These species are collected by Cat Nickels, a Ph.D. student working in Dr. Mark Ohman’s laboratory.


From left to right, the three species collected by Cat Nickels: Calanus pacificus herbivore, Eucalanus californicus ambush predator, and Metridia pacifica omnivore.

Every morning during our cycles of research while we follow a patch of ocean water, Cat collected 30 females from each of the three species. Next, she would incubate them at the right temperature, fed them freshly collected ocean water containing tiny phytoplankton food, and checked for egg production every 12 hours. If she found eggs, she would separate the female from her eggs to prevent her from eating them. Then Cat would continue making observations and count the number of eggs that hatched.


Cat Nickels, Ph.D. student counting hatched copepod eggs.

Her experiments compare how reproduction varies with phytoplankton intake for the three copepod species. Studying copepod reproduction is important because it can provide clues to the success of different species as conditions change in the future ocean.


Dr. Mark Ohman, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is also the Director of California Current Ecosystem LTER site

Blog 9 – Biogeochemical Cycles

How fast is the ocean changing? Animals and plants in the ocean hold the key to this broad question. What do animals in the ocean eat? How much and at what time? Can they adapt to climatic changes? If so, how?

These are some of the questions that drive the research conducted on this vessel. In order to get a better understanding of the interactions between living organisms and their environments scientists look for clues in the biogeochemical cycles.

You have probably heard of the water cycle or hydrologic cycle. It is a never-ending process that takes water through many phases throughout the Earth’s spheres. These include the hydrosphere, atmosphere, geosphere, and biosphere. For example, surface water in a lake evaporates into the atmosphere. As water condenses, it forms clouds and then returns to land as precipitation (rain or snow).

Other very important cycles are called biogeochemical cycles, which include the carbon, nitrogen, and iron cycles. By studying how these elements move through Earth’s spheres through an oceanographer’s eye, we obtain clues about the changes that take place in the ocean over time.


Dr. Mike Stukel from Florida State University uses various methods to study the cycling of carbon in the ocean.

Dr. Mike Stukel, a Scripps graduate now based at Florida State University, seeks to better understand how plankton process carbon from the atmosphere into the ocean and the processes that also pump carbon from ocean surface waters into the deep ocean.

At the surface level of the ocean, phytoplankton use the carbon dioxide found in the atmosphere for photosynthesis. Then zooplankton consume the phytoplankton. Some of the carbon is used to make their bodies and some is released as waste. This waste can sink to the bottom of the ocean in the form of marine snow, so-called for its white snow-like characteristics. The carbon within the waste can be broken down by bacteria, remain at the bottom of the ocean for thousands of years, or it can be upwelled and used again.

One way to determine this rate of particle sinking is by studying the decay of elements such as Uranium- 238 and Thorium- 234. Thorium- 234 sticks to particles that sink to the bottom of the ocean. Through his experiments, Dr. Stukel can determine the rate that carbon is being taken out of the ocean.


Brandon Stephens, Ph.D. student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography filters sea water to collect organic material for later analysis.

Brandon Stephens, Ph.D. student at Scripps, is also interested in the carbon cycle. He focuses his research on dissolved organic matter. This matter that comes from all living things is made up of carbohydrates, amino acids, and lipids. His first step is to filter many gallons of sea water to collect enough organic material. The filter is removed and frozen. When Brandon returns to land he will analyze the filters by combustion. In other words he will burn each of the filters. By doing this, he will be able to trap the gas released as carbon dioxide and calculate the amount of carbon per liter of sea water.

Nitrogen is another key element studied here. Nitrogen is very important because it is used by every living organism and forms part of every cell in the human body. Almost 80 percent of the atmosphere is made up of nitrogen gas but we cannot use it. It has to be “fixed” into a suitable form by special types of plants or algae. Or the nitrogen in once-living organisms can be broken down into the correct form by even smaller organisms such as bacteria.


Alain de Verneil, a Scripps Ph.D. candidate, measures the amount of dissolved nitrogen in the ocean.


The deep pink colors show the higher concentrations of nitrogen at increasing depths.

Finally, the iron cycle is researched by Dr. Kathy Barbeau from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. This important element is required by almost all organisms in the ocean during respiration. It is an element necessary for all living things, including humans. On the earth’s crust iron is an abundant metal but in the ocean it is present only in very low concentrations.


Dr. Kathy Barbeau from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, studies the cycling of iron.

Collecting sea water samples and processing them in Kathy’s laboratory at sea is no easy task. One big concern for contamination of her samples is our ship! It is made completely out of steel, including the ship’s hull and structures on deck, as well as cables that may have rusted. This rust is a form of iron that could easily contaminate samples.


Trace metal rosette mostly made out of plastic. Its bottles, screws, and cables have a coating that lowers the risk of iron contamination.

Blog 8 – Radiolarians!

Viewing live organisms under the microscope on a research vessel cannot get any better. Just a few drops of sea water can reveal a mesmerizing universe of movement and rich pigments that characterize so many species. While doing this, I realized that when I attended college I had only observed preserved samples. I could not stop looking. I was fascinated.

Some of the very interesting organisms in that drop of water were radiolarians. Radiolarians are beautiful, single-celled protozoans that consist of soft bodies and intricate skeletons made of silicate minerals. Their core may look a bit green due to symbiotic algae living there. The perfect symmetry of their skeletons has inspired scientists, artists, and architects since their popularization in the early 1900s by the detailed drawings made by German biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel. But radiolarians have been around much, much longer. Fossil records indicate their presence in the early Cambrian period close to 600 million years ago!


Radiolarian skeleton, photographed by Tristan Biard.

Although radiolarians have been around for a long time, and are abundant in our oceans, very little is known about them. Dr. Andrés Gutiérrez from Station Biologique de Roscoff (CNRS-UPMC) of France is interested in figuring out the vertical distribution of radiolarians along the California coast. This means he wants to know the diversity or types of radiolarians at different depths of water. There are different ways to do this. These include underwater photography, and collecting samples and analyzing their appearance (morphology) or their DNA. Radiolarians may be studied as a community, which means that a sample of water is taken from the ocean at a certain depth and all the organisms at those depths are studied as a group using their DNA sequences.


Dr. Andrés Gutiérrez and Tristan Biard, Ph.D. student, and looking for radiolarians from their sea water samples.

Tristan Biard, Ph.D. student, also from the Station Biologique de Roscoff, is especially intrigued by a photograph of a single radiolarian taken by a UVP, the Underwater Vision Profiler. He is interested in identifying this specific type of deep-water radiolarian. Using images from the UVP allows him to compare photographs with collected samples. Marc Picheral, research engineer from the Laboratoitre Océanographique de Villefranche-sur-Mer (CNRS-UPMC), France, has a lot of experience working with the UVP, which consists of flashing LEDs covered in glass cylinders and sensitive cameras. Every second, one meter of water flows between the LED lights and 10 photographs are taken. This means that at the end of one hour 36,000 photographs have been taken. Marc then uses computer programs to count and size the photographs of radiolarians and other organisms, and to sort them for identification.


Marc Picheral, research engineer, analyzing images from the UVP.

A method called DNA bar coding will be used by these scientists to create a DNA database once the science team returns to land. If the DNA of radiolarians collected on this expedition does not match a previously studied radiolarian by DNA or morphology, there is a chance they will have identified a new species.


Tristan Biard, next to the UVP, Underwater Vision Profiler.

This valuable information will allow scientists in the future to ask other research questions concerning changes in radiolarians along the California coast. It will also allow them to compare radiolarians off California with other oceans regions, such as the Mediterranean Sea.


Dr. Andrés Gutiérrez studies the ecology of radiolarians.

Blog 7 – Extraordinary Scientists

Being surrounded by scientists is an incredible experience. They are exceptional human beings with many skills and characteristics. These are some of the amazing attributes that many scientists share. Read carefully. You may possess these qualities as well!

Scientists have a passion for exploration. They are intrigued by nature and their surroundings. They might develop a research question based on an observation they’ve made. It might be an inquiry that they cannot shake off and keeps coming back.

Scientists never give up. They are some of the most determined individuals I have ever met. If experimental conditions change, such as weather or interruptions with technical equipment, they adapt to changes to continue with their research.

Scientists know how to program. Computer programming competency is part of many Ph.D. programs’ prerequisites nowadays. It is necessary for you to interpret your own data using programs written in languages such as MatLab.


Scientists using various computer programs. From left to right: Tristan Biard, Marc Picheral, Dr. Mark Ohman, Dave Jensen, and Andrés Gutiérrez.

Scientists are hard working people. They can work non-stop night and day!

Scientists working throughout the night shift.


Dr. Mike Landry, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Bellineth Valencia, Ph.D. Student.

Many scientists are bilingual or trilingual. On our ship, we can hear scientists speak their native languages. We have scientific representation from France, Colombia, Spain, Denmark, Germany, and the U.S.


Dr. Fanny Chenillat.

Scientists love to think. This is above all my favorite characteristic to observe. When there is a problem to be solved, scientists think, discuss, think, discuss, think, discuss, and they think and discuss! Sometimes there is quite a lot of silence but that silence has a purpose.


Silence in the lab. From left to right Dr. Ralf Goericke, Jasmine Tan, Marc Hafez, Maya Land, and Ben Whitmore.

Many people might have the misconception that science is a quick experiment where a procedure is followed and at the end there is a clear answer. This process may happen in some cases but when studying complex systems like our oceans there are too many factors to consider.


Scientists making decision. Ali Freibott and Bellineth Valencia.

The reality is that science is a process. Scientists may change their experimental procedures based on changing conditions or new questions they may have. Data collection and analysis may take months or years.

Doing a long term study such as the California Current Ecosystem-Long Term Ecological Research (CCE-LTER) requires much dedication. It allows scientists to compare data over long periods of time. This is very important because it can help us create models to make predictions about what will happen when there are changes in the environment.

Long term research like CCE-LTER is beneficial to us now but it will also give future scientists, like yourself, a library of knowledge to analyze how our beautiful oceans and life within it adapt to change.

Blog 6 – The Monster Net

Today we deployed the MOCNESS (Multiple Opening and Closing Nets and Environmental Sampling System). I love the name of this net as well as its beautiful engineering design. This magnificent instrument is composed of 10 black nets on its metal frame programmed to open and close at different depths to collect samples of zooplankton, krill, copepods, jellyfish, and many other organisms.


Preparing for MOCNESS deployment requires a deck check of its components and mechanisms to ensure that each of the nets will trip or open at the specified time. Each of the nets is electronically and mechanically connected through electrical wire. A stepping motor rotates in three steps to release the net. At that moment, a lever releases the cable and one net opens, closing the previous net. This process is repeated until all nets have been open and shut at the desired depths.



Dave Jensen, scientist, doing the deck check before deployment of the MOCNESS.

The system also includes a CTD probe used to measure the levels of salinity, temperature, and depth of the ocean. Plus a fluorometer is attached to measure amounts of chlorophyll in the water. In addition, the transmissometer is a type of sensor that allows us to measure the transparency of the water. It detects the amount of light that passes through a cylinder of ocean water.



Keith Shadle, oceanographic technician, directing the deployment of the MOCNESS for everyone’s safety.

Once the deck check is done, the MOCNESS team carefully lowers the net into the ocean. Four people hold lines of wire or rope to prevent the 800 pound net from swinging side to side while the winch lifts the MOCNESS and then lowers it to depths that can reach up to 800 meters (2,624 feet) or more.



Dr. Mark Ohman, chief principal investigator, Irina Köster, visiting graduate student, and Keith Shadle monitoring data and controlling accurate net tripping.

Scientists utilize data and samples from the MOCNESS net tows to better understand the vertical distribution of living organisms in the ocean. They are also interested in the limiting factors such as light conditions. For example, more or less light reaching certain depths of the ocean can affect the depths where the zooplankton (animal plankton) live. Net tows are done at different times of the day, usually one at noon and one at night. Night tows can give scientists a better idea of migratory zooplankton that move closer to the surface to feed.


It is impressive to watch the MOCNESS enter the ocean as its nets fill with air and take the shape of giant tentacles. Its retrieval from the ocean can be as impressive when its frame is covered in types of gelatinous plankton called salps or pyrosomes, as if returning from underwater MOCNESS battle.


MOCNESS returns from deep ocean waters covered in pyrosomes.

Blog 5 – Life at the Surface of the Ocean

The California coast is an incredible place to live for hundreds of species. The rich nutrients upwelled in this region near Point Conception provide the food source for unicellular organisms like phytoplankton that cannot be seen without using a microscope, to much larger species such as giant blue whales.
Many of our scientists aboard this research cruise study the interactions of small, drifting plankton to understand their role in the complex food web. Plankton form the base of the food web that almost all other marine organisms depend upon. Being on the ship’s deck for longer periods of time has given me the opportunity to view some of the diversity found at the surface of our complex ocean.
On our first day I was lucky to see a whale, but it was impossible to take a clear photograph from the distance of our ship. We often have the presence of birds, especially when we have made a stop. One of the reasons for this is that many fish will use our ship’s structure as shelter, if we remain in one place long enough. Soon after, birds are all around.
One beautiful bird to see as it glides centimeters off the surface of the water is the brown feathered black footed albatross. This amazing bird lives most of its life over the Pacific Ocean, only returning to land for nesting on the Hawaiian islands. Their wingspan can extend over two meters in length.


Black footed albatross landing. They are beautiful birds.

When our ship is moving it forms a wake behind the ship that creates a playground for dolphins. They will make an appearance surfing the waves one after the other.

Common Dolphins surfing by the side of the R/V Melville.

For the last few days we have been surrounded by Velella velellas. These beautiful by-the-wind-sailors are a special type of jellyfish that live at the sea surface. They complete their whole lifecycle at sea in the Pacific Ocean. They are free-floating hydrozoans carried by wind currents thousands of kilometers across the ocean, sometimes reaching the shore. Their deep blue tentacles blend in with the deep color of the ocean.

Gorgeous deep blue Velella Velellas.

Another amazing sight was spotting a giant sunfish. I screamed when I saw it from deck while my left hand took over photographing. It was an incredible moment for me to see a nearly meter long sunfish, as well as the realization that my camera has become an extension of myself.

Incredibly lucky shot of a sunfish.

Blog 4 – The Giant Net

Our research vessel has officially become a 24-hour research marathon! No moment is wasted on R/V Melville. There is a coordinated schedule to allow every scientist on board to collect samples or data. Some scientists work only at night or only during the day. Others work throughout the day and night depending on the length of their research activities. All work is done in cycles, which means that the collection of data lasts three to four days at a time.

The reason for this length of time has to do with the selection of a parcel of water that we follow using drifters. Drifters or buoys travel in the direction of a mass of water and we follow their path by the signals they send to our computers by satellite. We are interested in the interactions that occur in one specific part of the ocean at a time.


Amanda Netburn, a Scripps Ph.D. student, and Jami Chang prepare the Oozeki net for deployment. Some of the trawls are done during the night to collect samples of night feeders.

My first assignment on this experimental cycle was to assist with the Oozeki net mid-water trawl led by Amanda Netburn, a Scripps Ph.D. student. Amanda’s research is awesome! She studies how different species of fish respond to changes in their environment such as warmer temperatures and lower concentrations of oxygen (hypoxic layer). She is especially interested in studying organisms in the mesopelagic layer, which is an ocean layer between 200-1,000 meters (656-3,280 feet) of depth.

To do this, she collects samples of lantern fish at a depth of around 200 meters (656 feet). As we lowered the Oozeki net into the water I imagined it was a giant butterfly net immersed into the ocean to collect fish!


Dr. Pete Davison, Amanda Netburn, and Jami Chang with a retrieved net.

Using the Oozeki net for Netburn’s research is appropriate because it is designed to catch larger, faster animals that can swim (nekton) in contrast to animals that are free-drifting, such as plankton. Lantern fish are very interesting because they tend to live in the depths of the ocean and travel to the mesopelagic layer to feed at night. They hide in the deep waters in the daytime to protect themselves from predators that are able to see them with the penetrating sunlight in surface waters.

Dr. Pete Davison is also interested in studying lantern fish. He gathers data from a sonar that sends sound waves to the bottom of the ocean. These acoustic waves bounce back creating a sonar picture of the seafloor. But the acoustic waves also reflect off fish and plankton in midwater, where they form “deep scattering layers.”


This is a lantern fish with a parasitic copepod attached to it.

These scattering layers tell scientists where the concentrations of life in the ocean are located. By measuring the fish we find in the nets, Pete is able to confirm the accuracy of the acoustic data.


This is a pyrosome.

Blog 3 – Reaching the Point


Point Conception

If we drove from the city of Calexico to Point Conception along the coast of California it would take about six and a half hours to get there, assuming there is no traffic. But on our ship, it has taken us a little over two days to get here, including a stop to test our equipment south of San Clemente island. We are ready to start surveying the area to make a vertical profile of the ocean.

This would will be the first step before starting intensive experiments and sampling in different types or “parcels” of ocean water, which take three to four days at a time. Therefore reaching Point Conception is our first step to understanding the current conditions of the ocean. The MVP is used for this task. MVP stands for moving vessel profiler, which measures concentrations of chlorophyll a, counts plankton, and measures temperature and salinity at different depths in the ocean while the ship is moving.

The MVP is called a three-dimensional profile because we measure variations in conditions both horizontally and vertically in the ocean. These profiles include concentrations of chlorophyll a, which is a green pigment found in algae and plants. Finding these measurements helps indicate concentrations of the amount of phytoplankton, the living micro-organisms that support food webs in the ocean that scientists on this vessel are very interested in studying.

Knowing the temperature and salinity of the water can also give clues to changes in the ocean system. These changes can be compared to previous studies that date back to 1949 when CalCOFI (the California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations) began studying the Pacific Ocean off the California sea.


Maya Land, graduate student

“We have data collected by CalCOFI when the biggest fisheries in the U.S. collapsed. They were interested in the factors that lead to their demise,” explained cruise chief scientist Mike Landry of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

Both changes in temperature and salinity could indicate El Nino-like conditions.   We are also interested in intense upwelling areas. Upwelling refers to the movement of deep, cold nutrient-rich water toward the sea surface.

“At this time our preliminary results suggest that some one of these historically important upwelling areas seems to be shut down,” Landry added.

Upwelling helps fertilize the ocean and stimulate the growth of the single-celled algae (phytoplankton). Many drifting animals (zooplankton) and fish larvae depend on the production of phytoplankton in these upwelling regions.


Cat Nickels, PhD candidate and Dr. Rasmus Swalethorp, visiting Danish scientist, monitor the MVP data.

“In the following days we will find out if these unusual conditions will change. We might observe recovering upwelling or we might witness what the ocean might be like in the future if warming conditions persist,” said Landry.

Blog 2 – Adjusting to Sea


Leaving San Diego, Coronado Bridge

I’m doing my best to adjust to this new environment, which can be harsh on the human body. Learning how to keep your balance and developing those “sailor legs” to help you walk is definitely necessary. I admire all past and present explorers for their strength and determination to get to know the sea. After being on this vessel for a few days my fear for the ocean is gone. Its size is humbling, its motion is mysterious, and there is no other way to feel but being part of it.


The galley, or cafeteria


Living in the R/V (Research Vessel) Melville is very interesting. You have to find your way through its different levels, which can feel like a maze with many doors. The main level or first platform is where the galley or kitchen is located. This is great to know because if you miss a meal you can always come back for snacks like ice cream and fruit.


R/V Melville

R/V Melville

This main level is also the site for the main lab where scientists are often studying digital maps and data, or holding meetings. A level above the main deck is called O1 level where the library is located. There are the O2 and O3 levels, as well as the bridge, which is the control center where the captain and first and second mates make sure we travel safely by avoiding shallow areas and other moving vessels.

My room is located below the main deck, which is called the second platform. It is a spacious room with bunk beds, a sink, and enough drawers to put our belongings. Our restroom has several bars you can use to hold on to while you shower which I am very grateful for! When I sleep it feels like a waterbed gone wild. It often moves side to side and my reflexes wake me up from time to time to try to prevent me from falling off the bed.

Tristan Biard and Marc Picheral trying to keep their balance

Tristan Biard and Marc Picheral trying to keep their balance

But those are the adjustments that my body has to make in the next few days to feel completely at ease, I am so happy to share this experience with so many knowledgeable human beings. Everyone on board is very friendly and so welcoming. After all, many on board still remember their first rough days at sea.