Monthly Archive for April, 2009

Bermuda: Back to Where We Started

Sorcerer II arrived in Bermuda around 7 p.m. on Saturday April 25th after a five day, 1,000 mile sail from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. During the crossing, the crew experienced some challenging weather to say the least.  Two samples were collected, and the CTD data confirmed what the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) science team expected:  this deep, yet nutrient-poor stretch of open water was very mixed and observed no chlorophyll maximum within 50 meters depth. We are spending three nights in Bermuda before leaving for the Azores, a cluster of islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Portugal.

Bermuda is where I first started participating in the global ocean sampling work of the Institute. In January 2003, Dr. Venter asked me to fly to Bermuda and to work with a team of scientists at the Bermuda Biological Station for Research, now known as the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS) . BIOS, led by Anthony Knap, Ph.D., is an independent marine science organization founded to research and better understand Bermuda’s unique deep-ocean and coral reef environment. Dr. Knap and Rachel Parsons (presently the Microbial Observatory Lab Manager) welcomed me and the crew of Sorcerer II.

Back in 2003, I did a few sampling trips with Rachel on their research vessel the Weatherbird. In May 2003, Sorcerer II sailed into Bermuda and we did our first sampling in the Sargasso Sea off Bermuda’s coast. This work was our pilot study of ocean environmental sampling. The results from this work were published in 2004 and helped launch the official Sorcerer II Global Ocean Sampling Expedition later in 2004. Learn more about that pilot project and the results from our work in the Sargasso Sea here. Although we have enhanced our sampling gear, the basic idea of what we do and how we do it is still the same. It is almost surreal to be here approximately six years later, a circumnavigation under our belt, 400 samples collected and the Baltic, Black and Mediterranean Seas just ahead of us.

While in Bermuda I reconnected with friends and colleagues from BIOS, including the Dr. Knap, Rachel, James Marquez and Kristen Buck. They hosted an incredible tour of the station and the new research vessel the Atlantic Explorer. In an ongoing journey down memory lane, it turns out that the Atlantic Explorer was the first boat I did research on in graduate school at Louisiana State University in the 1990s. The Sorcerer crew was very impressed by the tour of the new ship and the new facilities. Rachel and Kristen provided extraordinary summaries of some of the research being done at BIOS. I recommend that you take time to visit their website and review their ongoing research projects.

While in Bermuda, Dr. Erling Norrby joined the crew. Erling, a virologist and former Secretary General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, is a good friend and colleague of Dr. Venter and serves on the Board of Trustees of the Venter Institute. Erling has completed multiple crossings on Sorcerer II, including Fiji to Vanuatu and South Africa to Ascension Island.  He is an experienced sailor, and over the years I have found him to be a knowledgeable source on a range of topics. His presence ensures that the next 2,000 miles will include good science, good conversation, and additional sailing skill for the Atlantic crossing.

We leave Bermuda tomorrow (April 28th) and will not likely have internet connection until we reach the Azores so stay tuned for more exciting tales from the sea.

The Search for Environmental “Gems” Continues

As an original crew member of the Sorcerer II circumnavigation that began in 2003, I had not been sailing/sampling on the boat since September 2007. I arrived in Florida with a mixture of emotions. Although life on board can be tedious, I was excited to return and embark on this next leg of discovery. Dr. Venter has created an incredible team that functions well at sea. Despite the close quarters and monotonous periods that can overshadow the journey, there is an easy and familiar feeling among the crew. These expeditions are serious and challenging, but they are also full of fun and adventurous moments.

The crew spent the week getting the boat ready to leave Florida; repairing sails, provisioning for food and organizing the science gear/supplies (I hope that everything was fixed!).  After a few days of reacquainting myself with boat life, I, too, was ready to go. At noon on Tuesday, April 21, we left the dock in Ft. Lauderdale enroute to Bermuda. Bermuda is the first of two brief stops (second are the Azores) on our way to Plymouth, England. We plan to arrive in England around mid-May. Once there we will spend a week performing intensive sampling with the Plymouth Marine Laboratory team.

Sample Crew

Kimberly Ulmer, a graduate student onboard from Panama to Bermuda; me (Jeff Hoffman), Karolina Ininbergs, Swedish collaborator, and John Henke, first mate.

We departed Florida in partly cloudy and calm conditions. Within an hour of leaving we had hooked three medium sized skip jack tunas. We made sushi and grilled the rest for dinner (this would count towards one of the “fun” moments I referenced). Since around eight a.m. this morning the wind has been a constant 25-30 knots, so the captain killed the engine. We have been sailing with an average speed of 11 knots. With strong winds and seas between 6-8 feet, we are unable to deploy the CTD or even stop for a sample.

As a sailing research expedition we are very dependent on the weather, and we are hopeful that the winds will die down later this afternoon or early tomorrow morning. We are all eager to collect the 24th sample of this leg of the expedition.

It will be very exciting to get metagenomic sequences from the conspicuous cyanobacterial blooms in the Baltic Sea. Hopefully it can help us understand more about what regulates toxin production in some of the species. – Karolina Ininbergs, Scientist and Crew Member of Sorcerer II

In Florida, the crew welcomed Swedish scientist Karolina Ininbergs. Ininbergs, a researcher at Stockholm University, is an expert on marine cyanobacteria and nitrogen fixation. The earliest life forms on this planet are thought to be early ancestors of cyanobacteria, and they are the first organisms capable of photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria play key roles in the carbon and nitrogen cycle of the biosphere. In part to genome sequencing, information on the genetic basis of nitrogen metabolism and its control in different cyanobacteria is available and providing invaluable to researchers. In addition to securing sequences from cyanobaterial blooms in the Baltic Sea this summer, Ininbergs hopes to spot colonies of the globally important nitrogen fixer Trichodesmium, a bacteria essential to understanding nutrient cycling in the ocean, and “whatever else maybe out there that might be fixing nitrogen.”

By increasing the collection of the largest fraction from 20 to 200 micrometers we hope to include more of the larger species of cyanobacteria in the samples then previously possible; therefore making our new friend Karolina happy and ensuring more sequencing treasures from these extraordinary environmental gems. Now if only we can get the weather to cooperate…

Back on Land

We arrive in Ft. Lauderdale and are all glad to be back on land for a few days. But we were also elated by the success of the first part of the expedition. This first journey was difficult because we had to deploy and test new equipment, to sample a diverse array of environments and oceanographic features, from large surface and subsurface blooms of photosynthetic organisms to nutrient-depleted areas of the Caribbean, and it was the first time in a year that the Sorcerer II had really been tested in open water and long distances. Data on both photosynthesis and respiration were captured, much of which will be novel and highly useful in explaining the metabolic pathways and biological participants involved in carbon and nutrient cycling in the ocean.

This week we prepare to depart for Bermuda and the Azores and will continue on to Plymouth Marine Laboratory in England. Based on the sampling success of the first leg of our journey, it is difficult to contain our enthusiasm over the microbial discoveries that lay ahead. Stay tuned as we share more scientific adventures with you.

Through the Canal

We are now out in the warm and saline Caribbean Sea, and the waters are an intense blue. The waters are so blue, there is very little in them: we drop the CTD and barely get 0.25 micrograms of Chlorophyll per liter all the way to the 50 meter mark. The clear waters of the Caribbean are very low in nutrients, and the nutrients below the thermocline are deep, well beyond the reach of photosynthetic plankton. In fact, our CTD profile looks like a series of straight lines rather than the peaks and curves seen in the Pacific. Still, we take two samples for comparison and continue on to Florida.

Miraflores Locks

We passed through the gigantic Miraflores locks on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal this morning, and now we are in front of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Station on Lake Gatun. The Sorcerer has sampled here on two other occasions, so to continue our time course evaluation, we ready the equipment for sampling. However, the Panama Canal is currently being dredged and widened, and the water at this end of Lake Gatun is so stirred up with silt and sediment that our filters instantly clog, and this sample more resembles a soil sample than a traditional water sample. We preserve our silty samples and continue on to the Atlantic Ocean.

Going Green to Blue

As we round the southern most point on our trip we notice that the water has gone from blue to green, and that there appear to be surface current and eddies in the water. We decide to stop and have a look with the CTD. As we lower the instrument from the aft cockpit, we encounter a layer of chlorophyll so thick that it actually coats the lines and hoses with a green layer of algae. At right is the CTD profile – the thermocline here is particularly sharp, and the temperature (red line) drops from 29ºC at the surface to 14.9ºC at 50 meters depth, indicating that cool, nutrient rich waters are relatively close to the surface. As expected, oxygen (blue) peaks at 110% saturated at the chlorophyll max, and drops to less than 10% saturated at 50 meters deep, indicating a switch from photosynthesis to respiration. Equally telling, the pH rises slightly at the Chlmax, indicating the consumption of CO2, and then plummets as carbon dioxide is produced from respiration. This represents an increase in acidity of over 50% in the space of 30 meters, which is quite amazing to see. This is by far the largest bloom we have encountered on our trip, and we take samples at 50 and 20 meters before continuing to the Panama Canal.

CTD Profile

Below are images of the three sets of filter racks, corresponding to the 3.0 micron filters (top pair), the 0.8 micron filters (middle pair), and the 0.1 micron filters (the bottom pair).  The filters on the left side all came from the layer of active respiration at 50 meters, where the primary processes of metabolism are bacterially driven.  The filters on the right are taken from the CHLmax layer, where much of the primary production is occurring.  All three of the CHLmax filters were heavily pigmented, with the top filter almost a millimeter thick in green algae.

3.0 micron filters (top), 0.8 micron filters (middle), and 0.1 micron filters (bottom)

Costa Rican Dome

In Nicaraguan waters is a regular spring upwelling event sometimes referred to as the Costa Rican dome. Winds blow across the Central American Isthmus near Lake Nicaragua and contribute to an upwelling of nutrient rich waters. These nutrients enable phytoplankton to grow, and as we approach the southern end of Nicaragua, the water takes on a greenish hue, and we note large amounts of sea turtles on the surface of the water.  The turtles don’t seem to pay us much attention as we stop and take a sample. At 11 meters is a thick band of chlorophyll, and the oxygen saturation at the surface of the ocean is 117%, indicating very active photosynthesis (and production of oxygen). As before, we take samples from the oxygen minimum layer and the chlorophyll max. From what I understand, this bloom has only been detected by satellite, and we are the first research group to take genomic samples from this important phytoplankton bloom.