Seagoing action

San Marcos Middle School students head to Birch Aquarium

The cushion sea star lives on coral reefs throughout the Indo-Pacific
  • The cushion sea star lives on coral reefs throughout the Indo-Pacific

Birch Aquarium at Scripps

2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla

On a gray day in May, a group of San Marcos Middle School girls and other visitors gathered in the Birch Aquarium galleria to try something that had not been done at the aquarium before: a live ship-to-shore communication with scientists aboard a research vessel. From the ship Sikuliaq, a research vessel 40 nautical miles off shore north of Point Conception (California’s coastal elbow), Scripps scientists patched in via Skype to talk with the eighth-graders about research conducted on the ship. While the students chatted with researchers about El Niño studies and the challenges of adapting to daily life on a boat, Birch Aquarium staff tried out a concept that will be integrated into Expedition a new exhibit being phased in this year.

The concept: link visitors to the seagoing action aboard research vessels. It’s a view that land-dwellers never see: the open water, sea birds above, and ocean-dwellers swimming along (or jumping, or breaching) on camera. Shark, whale, and dolphin sightings happen fairly regularly.

A vision of the aquarium’s director, Harry Helling, the exhibit aims to immerse visitors in the exploration experience. It will replace the climate-change exhibit called Feeling the Heat. A display demonstrating the high-tech capabilities of Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s new $280 million research ship Sally Ride will be the centerpiece. An exhibit preview in June and July included El Niño watchers and a shipwreck-diving marine archaeologist. Officially opening in October, the exhibit is rolling out in stages

Hence the “guinea pigs” from San Marcos Middle School. It just so happened that one of the field trips on the aquarium’s schedule for that day back in May was a group of eighth-grade girls and their teacher Debra Brice, a National Science Foundation grant recipient.

Brice takes her students on field trips to the Ocean Institute in Orange County, “Where they go out to sea for a half day on a boat. They do plankton tows, sedimentation analysis, side scan sonar, water chemistry, wildlife observation (whale watching), and then lunch on beach, and then more hands-on lab studies inside. They spend a day being oceanographers.

“Studies have shown that it is middle school where you need to capture their attention, where they decide on what they might take in high school and where their interests may lie for the future,” said Brice, who says she works to employ the STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts, and math — system into her curriculum.

Brice had already planned a day of science activities for the girls — a visit to Scripps Marine Facility at Point Loma and a stop at Birch to see the exhibits and meet with Scripps researchers — when the aquarium contacted her to ask if she would be willing to try out the ship-to-shore call live in the aquarium galleria. Brice — who has been a teacher-at-sea on six Scripps cruises and has arranged for live broadcasts into her classroom from Antarctica, along the Equator, and the coast of Hawaii — said yes.

A Skype call sounds simple enough, but since cell towers are not available in the ocean and satellite connections are expensive, the plentiful bandwidth we’re accustomed to on land is not available aboard ships. Satellite position, weather, and wave swell also influence communication.

Mark Ohman, professor of biological oceanography and lead Scripps researcher on the cruise, said “we had to allocate all our shipboard internet bandwidth to this call, placing all other...data links temporarily on hold.”

“We could see the researchers, but they couldn’t see us,” said Birch Aquarium post-doctoral fellow Darcy Taniguchi, who set up the call.

“The ship-to-shore communication has made me want to share our research more with younger students. I was glad to see how eager the students were to learn more about what we do,” said Angel Ruacho, a graduate student on the cruise. Ruacho went along to take measurements of iron dissolved in seawater (just like humans, aquatic animals need iron to stay healthy). “I think the session went pretty well and the students asked good questions pertaining to the kind of work we were doing at sea.”

Ohman and the crew aboard Sikuliaq took to sea at relatively short notice to study the effects of the 2015–’16 El Niño on the California Current Ecosystem, named for the cold current that flows down the west coast of North America. Scripps scientists were, Ohman said, “anxious to learn just how the ocean food web and biogeochemical cycles were affected,” by the warm water of El Niño. To do so, they had to borrow a ship from University of Alaska Fairbanks, because a Scripps ship was not available. “It’s too soon to report definitively our results,” Ohman told the kids at the Institute, “but a few things are clear. Not only was the ocean anomalously warm, but phytoplankton [single-celled algae] were anomalously sparse.”

Phytoplankton are the base of the ocean food chain. The smallest organisms in the ocean affect the largest: minuscule krill eat phytoplankton, and baleen whales (among many other animals) eat krill. Existence in the ocean depends on phytoplankton to convert light into energy to make the building blocks of life.

A display describing the study of the California Current Ecosystem was the first installation in Expedition Images from the Sikuliaq cruise compared plankton samples before and during El Niño. To show how scientists cope with the realities of being at sea — such as 24-hour-every-day data collection, cramped quarters, and galley food — the exhibit included little snacks and games that they bring along to help them stay comfortable (and sane).

One of Brice’s students, Angelee Castro, said she was impressed by “the way they kept themselves detail-oriented and focused while in unstable conditions such as the sea.”

“I’m very fascinated in oceanography and Mrs. Brice’s field trips and guest speakers have piqued my interest in these fields,” said another classmate, Hayden Yantha.

After the ship-to-shore call, the San Marcos Middle School students moved to a classroom bungalow, next to the aquarium’s shark tank, for a face-to-face with Scripps scientists. They hit it off with researcher Damien Leloup, whose French accent and enthusiasm for underwater study bring to mind the most famous ambassador of oceanography, Jacques Cousteau. Leloup spent a year at Scripps on research and development for a new program focusing on marine archeology — a discipline dedicated to finding and studying shipwrecks.. “Not only that, but also studying past human interaction with the sea, vessel structures, and submerged settlements from when the oceans were lower,” Leloup added.

His current work, in collaboration with an international team, focuses on tracing the ancient Maritime Silk Road. When he met with the eighth-graders in May, he told them his next diving expedition would be to a group of small islands off the coast of Vietnam. Originating in China and bringing goods west like its overland counterpart, one leg of the Maritime Silk Road sailed down the coast to the South China Sea, hugged the seaboard of Vietnam, connected to India, went on to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, and reached the Mediterranean overland. Estimates date the maritime route to the first century AD. It gained popularity during the Han Dynasty in the second century, and eventually the sea became favorable because ships could carry more goods and transport them more safely than overland caravans. Chinese charts from 700 AD show the Chàm Islands, off the coast of Vietnam, where ancient seafarers found anchorage facilities and fresh water. Voyagers took shelter from storms in the calm-looking harbor, only to find that the storms followed them. Over the years, shipwrecks left behind their cargo: the sunken “treasure” marine archaeologists now hope to find. Leloup and his crew headed there in June.

The government and academia of Vietnam, as well as Finders and Monash universities in Australia, have been active in identifying and recording maritime archaeology sites. A new Centre for Underwater Archeology is in the works near Hoi An, on the mainland a half-hour’s speedboat ride from the Chàm Islands. Mrs. Brice’s students now follow the Vietnam Maritime Archeology Project on Facebook.

While Leloup was shipwreck diving, the students arranged another Skype call with him in their San Marcos classroom. The “principal had just purchased a very high quality HD camera and video-conferencing microphone, so we had excellent audio which made all the difference,” Brice shared.

That day the students had to get to school by 7 a.m. so they could connect with Damien and his research team at 8 p.m. in Vietnam. After dinner one night, Leloup and two other scientists sat down to chat with the students about exploring a shipwreck using a remote operated vehicle.

“They loved it…” said Brice. “They asked about the value of the porcelain and stoneware artifacts to understanding of the sites,” she said of her students. “‘How were the artifacts processed?,’ for example. ‘Why do you need to put them through a series of water baths, not just take them out of the ocean and let them dry?’...

“We spoke for almost an hour and they would have talked longer but the bell rang and they had to go to class.”

The Chàm Islands trip marked the first deployment of RYGH, the newest addition to the Scripps remote operated vehicle family. Named for the daughter of a major donor, RYGH was built in San Diego by SeaBotix Teledyne, in conjunction with U.S. Navy needs. The vehicle allows operators to explore at depths up to 1000 feet — much farther down than scuba gear can safely get a human. The students had built a remote-operated vehicle of their own in Brice’s after-school underwater robotics club, so they could talk shop with Leloup.

With tips from fishermen who get ceramics caught in their nets or dive for lobsters and spy pottery scattered on the seafloor, Damien and the team searched the waters around the Chàm Islands for new shipwreck sites. They talked with a local who found a piece of Changsha ceramics, from Hunan Province in southeastern China, dating back to the seventh or eighth century. Many of the findings date to Song Dynasty in China, from 960–1279 AD.

At a previously known site called “Bai Ong,” named for a popular beach, the team recorded over a hundred pot shards ranging in age from hundreds to thousands of years old. RYGH also allowed them to map the area by filming, so researchers can study details of the wreck without disturbing it. Divers brought up a select few pieces submerged in three to sixty feet of water, some estimated to be 2000 years old. The Management Board for Cultural Sites permitted Leloup to borrow a few of the retrieved items for conservation, study, and possible display at Birch.

But manmade artifacts were not all the vehicle captured on camera. RYGH sent back pictures from the depths that showed thriving specimens of sea life thought to be fished out or gone from those waters. Leloup said that his Vietnamese colleagues were glued to the screen trying to catch a glimpse of what was down there: soft corals, gorgonians, nudibranchs, what seemed to be black coral, angelfish, crustaceans, and more.

A series of photos and captions describing Leloup’s work went up on a wall at the aquarium in June. Helling has invited the San Marcos students back so they can provide input on the display.

Brice’s 2016–2017 pupils are on the list for a tour of the Sally Ride, which arrived in San Diego August 26.

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