by Laura Lilly
When you do zooplankton tows, you bring a lot of monstrous-looking creatures onboard. Sometimes we get Phronima hyperiid amphipods, which were the inspiration for the 1979 movie Alien; occasionally we pull up red tuna crabs, small lobster-like crustaceans with very sharp claws; and the other day we caught two vampire squids, small purple creatures with big black eyes, Dumbo ears, and tissues between their tentacles that resemble vampire cloaks. But one of the craziest monsters we have is the net we use to capture and sample these organisms: the MOCNESS!
Assuming you haven’t been living under a rock for the past hundred years, you will probably recognize MOCNESS as a play on Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster. MOCNESS stands for Multiple Opening/Closing Net and Environmental Sampling System, and was developed by Peter Wiebe at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. If you can process that behemoth of a name, you will get clues about what the MOCNESS does. Most of our plankton nets have simple circular ‘mouths’ that stay open for the whole net deployment: they go down to depth open and come back up still open, so if we sample down to 200 meters we are actually collecting animals everywhere between the surface and 200 meters. That comprehensive sampling is fine for a lot of the research questions we ask (aka: “Who is present in the upper ocean off San Diego versus Monterey?”), but sometimes we want more information about which animals live at specific depths. As its name implies, the MOCNESS has multiple nets (10 on our current setup!) attached to one frame, and they can be opened and closed in sequence to sample different depths. If you want to compare the zooplankton living at 1000 meters versus 100 meters, you can program separate nets to close at each of those depths. The MOCNESS also has oceanographic instruments to measure water temperature, salinity, oxygen, and fluorescence, so we can get information about the physical water profile in addition to zooplankton specimens.
Most of our MOCNESS tows on this cruise sample down to 450 meters, although occasionally we sample to 1000 meters. Those deep tows can last over three hours, which doesn’t even include the net washdowns afterward! The majority of the sample from each net filters down to a plastic jar attached to the end of the net, but once the nets come back on deck, we hose them down to make sure we collect all the animals that may have gotten stuck in the net mesh. Net washdowns sometimes feel like they go on forever, but they can be very important: one of the vampire squids we caught a couple of days ago was stuck halfway down the net, and we wouldn’t have collected it if we hadn’t done the net washdown.
Net washing time is also essential for taking in the afternoon sun (or sometimes early morning pre-dawn air) out on deck, and for keeping an eye and ear open for passing whales. Today we started our third cycle, and we were graced all day by the presence of several fin whales. Their broad backs and deep exhales were sometimes just 50 feet from our ship. The sound of a fellow mammal emerging from the depths of the ocean to release a breath of air never gets old. Plus, all those whales are a sure sign that there are zooplankton around to feed on!