What’s It Like to Sample Sea Life in Remote Pacific?

What’s it like to spend six weeks at sea in the remote Pacific Ocean, where the closest human beings (besides your shipmates) are the astronauts in orbit on the International Space Station? Earlier this year, Boston University College of Arts & Sciences undergraduate researcher Allie Cole (CAS’21), a marine science major, got the chance to find out.

“You get used to the rocking of the sea that puts you to sleep every night,” she says.

Cole works in the lab of BU marine biologist Randi Rotjan, and one of the lab’s projects is a 10-year-long innovative study of how larval marine life are distributed across the remote Phoenix Islands Protected Area, a region in the middle of the Pacific that covers an undersea equivalent of the entire state of California. Over the course of six weeks during summer 2019, Cole lived aboard the Sea Education Association scientific vessel Robert C. Seamans, dragging nets across 3,000 nautical miles of the Pacific Ocean.

“The nets are 332 microns thin,” says Allie, “so they collect all of the really small stuff that you can’t see [with the naked eye] in the ocean.” That small stuff she’s talking about is phytoplankton, zooplankton, larval fish, and other species that Cole, back on solid ground in Boston, will spend the rest of the academic year analyzing under a microscope in the Rotjan Lab.

Watch Cole’s video blog above, and check out her account of the trip “by the numbers” here:

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  • In total, I processed 94 nets over 51 deployments, for a total of 409 jars and vials of samples to bring back to BU.
  • On the boat, I sorted through almost 70 liters of biomass, which would have contained roughly 70 million different organisms. (We could usually count between 150-200 organisms in one ml of sample, manually.)
  • I spent 63 days living on the boat and saw 63 sunsets, but only 7 sunrises.
  • I saw 5 rainbows-one was a double!
  • I went snorkeling 14 times.
  • While at sea, the only contact I had with the outside world consisted of six emails: two from my parents and four from members of the Rotjan Lab.
  • I saw an immeasurable amount of trash and plastic.
  • Prior to the trip, I spent over 217 days dreaming about going to the Phoenix Islands, 50 days trying to convince myself that it was real and that I was actually going, and 63 days having the best time of my life at sea.

If you are a BU undergrad who would like to participate in our video field report series, please contact Devin Hahn with details about your lab affiliation and fieldwork assignment.

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