Sampling at Sea

This post is part of a series chronicling the September 12-15, 2019 research cruise on board the R/V Oceanus, Oregon State University’s largest research vessel. This cruise was funded by Oregon Legislative funds through the Oceangoing Research Vessel Program. Coordination and additional support was provided by Oregon Sea Grant and the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.

Follow the adventures of the students, educators, and researchers who are on board engaging in #STEMatSea.

By Abigail Kirby

My name is Abigail Kirby and I am writing this post while aboard OSU’s R/V Oceanus! Last Spring at the end of my junior year of high school I applied to be a part of this research cruise because I am absolutely enthralled with the ocean and everything it has hidden beneath its surface. My passion for all things marine bloomed in me at a very young age thanks to the beautiful South Slough Reserve, nestled on the Coos Bay of the Southern Oregon Coast. In the summer, I am hired on annually at the slough to help lead summer science camps as an education intern. Activities at camp often include trekking around the trails, exploring the beach, and conducting water-related experiments.

On board the ship, there are many graduate students and scientists working on separate projects and experiments. Notable among them is Dr. Leigh Torres, who is working to study the effects of human noise on gray whales by collecting samples of their defection events (poop) then analyzing these fecal samples for hormones that may indicate their stress levels. Also on board is Jessica Porquez, an OSU researcher who is studying seabird distribution and abundance, identifying individual species and recording their locations. And the esteemed Dr. Sarah Henkel (who I first had the privilege of encountering during a lecture at OIMB in July), a benthic ecologist, who conducts surveys of the ocean bottom and the animals that live there at the designated PacWave energy test site.

One of the best ways to test what is at the bottom of the ocean is through a method called box coring. Bolted to the stern of the Oceanus is an A-frame that is able to lift and deploy the heavy metal box that is sent to collect a sample of sediment from the seafloor. Many hands are required in deploying and retrieving the device. First, someone must turn on the A-frame and run the hydraulics while two other hands guide the box corer over the back of the boat. The device is lowered to the bottom where a trigger releases, and the jaws close, quickly enclosing the sediment inside the core. Using the power of hydraulics, it is then pulled up and retrieved using two long poles with a rope and hook set-up. Two hands hook the line over the handles and guide the box back into its resting place while the A-frame is maneuvered back to its upright position.

Once the sample is back in its stand, we open the double-doors on the top, and reach in with a centimeter ruler. We measure the depth of the sediment from top to bottom, and then also collect a bit of the surface in a small, marked container. The jaws are then forced open, releasing the sediment into a bucket that is placed underneath. From there it is transported to a sieve that is able to sift out the sand, leaving the organisms and solid debris behind. Using forceps, critters are put into a larger container which will be preserved to study later. This process is repeated for each core.

Some of the sea creatures found in the samples where an assortment of sand dwelling worms, proboscis and all, brittle stars and brittle star bits, small bivalves, and tiny little sea snails.

female with binoculars looks out to sea
Abbie surveys the sea from the flying bridge

Although I do love marine science, it is not necessarily what I will choose to pursue as a career, or at least not directly. My goal is to study infectious diseases, especially those of the viral kind and the “spillover” effect that allows them to jump from animal host to our own species. I’d like to be able to make conclusive connections between emerging viruses and the climate change that humans have imparted on our planet. I hope to one day study the spillover effect between humans and marine life, and then establish a direct link to our climate pollution.

Overall, this trip has been a blast and I am thankful to each and every person who helped get me here.


Abigail Kirby is senior at North Bend High School. She spends her summers working as an education intern at South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve in Charleston, and has volunteered for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Salmon Trout Enhancement Program (STEP) program.

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