The Lumberjack student newspaper
Photo by Alex Anderson | Cal Poly Humboldt oceanogrpahy student Miriam Cima (left), counts fish before tossing them back into the ocean.

Research vessel brings students face-to-face with ocean creatures


by Brad Butterfield

Originally printed April 26, 2023

Two diesel engines churn out over 1000 horsepower into the frigid waters of the Humboldt Bay just after 8am on April 22. On-board, a small team of students, professors and crew members enjoy the calm waters of the Woodley Island Marina before entering the rolling Pacific. Though 49 years old, Cal Poly Humboldt’s science vessel, The Coral Sea, has gone through many rounds of facelifts over the years and is nearly unrecognizable from her original form of 1974. With the 2008 refitting of two new diesel engines letting out a steady hum into the misty Pacific air and a recent paint job displaying ‘Cal Poly Humboldt’ in perfect white text on the forward bow of the ship, the old girl looks and sounds like a much younger yacht.

Before exiting Humboldt Bay’s enterprising mess of wave-dissipating concrete blocks, Captain Jim Long kills the engines. Oceanography students donning hard hats carefully deploy a long fishnet and heavy metal trawling doors.

 The Coral Sea’s wild years have been long left in her wake. She was bought by the then-named ‘Humboldt State University’ in 1998. Though obediently committed to science now, echoes of her wild years can be found around the boat. Kept behind a metal door on the port side of the deck, a paper copy of a 2017 article in the North Coast Journal titled: Past Lives of the Coral Sea details the vessel’s younger and more wild years. 

One time owner of the boat, Ronald Markowski, used the boat in the 1980’s as a, “floating headquarters from which he radioed instructions to a team of pilots coming in from the Bahamas,” Sam Armanino writes in The North Coast Journal. Those pilots were pawns in a much larger scheme which smuggled cocaine and marijuana from Colombia into Florida and eventually, the greater United States. Eventually, these unlawful escapades would lead to a 45 year sentence for Markowski and the seizure of the Coral Sea by The DEA. The long arm of the law would later use the Coral Sea in an operation coined: The Albatross Sting, which saw the yacht rigged with audio and video recording equipment. The operation hinged on the cooperation of former Markowski associate, Frank Brady, who would lead to the downfall of the sting when the DEA discovered he had, “continued to smuggle cocaine under their noses,” Armanino writes in the NCJ.

Decades beyond her drug-days, now associated with Trinidad’s Telonicher Marine Lab, the Coral Sea’s massive a-frame arm, with a capacity for 5,000lbs, guides in the students’ systematically laid out fishnet released ten minutes prior. Today, Oceanography 260 students are out on the last of their cruises for the spring semester, focused on marine biology. 

Adjacent to  modern flat screen navigation monitors, student Maddy Ho is filling out a worksheet tallying the living organism totals (hand counted by the students) that were caught in the first trawl of the day. Top of the list shows: 138 Dungeness crab, 147 shrimp,  27 ctenophores, or comb jellies.  

Photo by Alex Anderson | Oceanography student Miriam Cima holds up squid that was caught using one of the R/V Coral Sea sampling nets.

“We do four cruises per semester,” Ho explains. “Biological, geological, chemical and physical.” 

Powering three miles out into the open ocean, the Coral Sea was finally home again, riding growing waves. Those not quite at-home made good on Captain Jim Long’s advice given at 8:00 a.m. before leaving the marina. 

“If you’re going to get sick – it goes over the side. Try to do it on the downwind side,” Long said. 

As a couple of students stood queasy on the starboard side of the sturdy yacht, Trinity Abercrombie explained the critical role the Coral Sea plays in education. 

“I don’t think that I would be into this major as much as I am if it weren’t so hands-on. The Coral Sea is definitely a hands-on experience and you get to be in the field working as soon as you join the major.” Abercrobie said before adding, “ It gives you a perspective on your future – like what you’re actually going to be doing in the field later on.”

In between exercises carried out by students of oceanography 260, a small team of students conducted the first series of measurements as part of their year-long senior project. One member of this team, Simon Kurciski, served six years in the Navy, completing many long submarine missions. His longest stint below the surface, Kurciski said, was 51 days. Now though, Kurciski’s time at sea serves a much different purpose. 

“We are comparing the effect of different photosynthesizers in the water on the chemistry of the water surrounding them,” said Kurciski. “Specifically we are looking at the effects that eelgrass in Humboldt Bay and kelp up in Trinidad have on perimeters like acidity, dissolved oxygen, total carbons, CO2.”

Kurciski and his team methodically gather water samples from two meters below the surface, then transfer the water into empty beer bottles. The amber tint of the bottles coupled with mercuric chloride added by Marcos Moreno gives the researchers a time capsule of sorts. The tint blocks light from further affecting the biological material.

“The reason we are adding these chemicals is to essentially stop the biological processes,” Moreno explains. 

While the sampling is conducted exclusively off of the California coastline, Kurciski emphasizes that the results will reflect the real world implications of human-caused climate change. One test result that specifically interests Kurciski is the samples’ pH.

“Since the industrial revolution the ocean has increased in acidity by around 30%. That’s huge. We’re already living in an ecosystem that has been dramatically altered by humans in every way,” says Kurciski. “We’re trying to catch up and understand the effect of the changes that we’ve already brought.”

“The sad thing about climate change -and broadly, human-caused changes- is that a lot of the change is already locked in… deep ocean water circulates very slowly,” said Kurciski. “The oldest deep ocean water can be up to 1000 years old – in the Pacific. That extra carbon that we’ve put in there – that isn’t going anywhere.”

The future of the Coral Sea will again be determined in-part by an arm of the US government – though this time it’s not the DEA. Instead, hawk-eyed regulators in California will play a large role in the Coral Sea’s future. 

“The CA air quality resources board is mandating that we replace all of our engines – we have five engines,” Long explains from the ornate bridge of the ship. He’s been working on the Coral Sea for fifteen years, serving as captain for three. “We’re looking at a half million to a million just for new engines by 2025. And then we still have an old boat. So we are trying to decide what to do to go forward. There’s going to be some big changes coming.” Importantly, Long assured, “The Coral Sea is not going anywhere.”

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