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Science At Sea In The Galápagos Marine Reserve

Local Oceanography Students Explore In The Path Of Darwin

Earlier this year, oceanography seniors at the Univeristy of Washington had the singular opportunity to conduct a research cruise in one of the most scientifically significant regions of the world, the Galápagos Archipelago. Normally, the senior projects are carried out in Puget Sound, but this year the University's research vessel was scheduled to be in the Pacific all season.

Responsible for making the Galápagos cruise happen was Roy Carpenter, a professor of oceanography and one of the four faculty members teaching this course. "I just knew there was a phenomenal amount of things the students could learn there, and this was not an experience that could come along regularly, so when the chance came I thought it was well worth jumping at it,” he says.

The oceanography department's senior capstone experience was designed to give students a feel for the enormous amount of effort and logistics that go into an actual research cruise. Students effectively act as research scientists, developing a thesis, designing an individual research project, writing proposals, negotiating with the other ‘scientists' to devise a cruise plan, managing an equipment budget, and conducting their research aboard the UW's research vessel, the Thomas G. Thompson.

"The capstone sequence for our seniors is an opportunity to integrate the things they've learned over the years and bring them together in a practical sense of how the oceans work as opposed to how they work on the chalkboard,” explains Russ McDuff, the director of the UW School of Oceanography.

The Galápagos Islands are located on the equator about 1,000 kilometers west of Ecuador. Named one of the first World Heritage sites in 1978, the islands and the surrounding Galápagos Marine Reserve, a combined area of 133,000 sq km, represents one of the world's largest protected regions. The Galápagos Islands are perhaps best know for their most famous visitor, Charles Darwin, whose short, five-week visit in 1835 informed his theory of evolution. Today the islands still present many opportunities for scientific discovery.

The Galápagos Archipelago encompasses a unique environment in which to study oceanographic processes. The volcanically active islands rest above a magma hot spot on the Nazca tectonic plate; it was not far from here that the first hydrothermal vents were discovered nearly 30 years ago. The confluence of several surface currents and the upwelling of the Equatorial Undercurrent, which brings cool, nutrient-rich waters to the surface during non-El Nino years, creates a fertile environment that supports the abundant marine life. The senior oceanography class of 20 contained biological, chemical, geological and physical oceanography majors. There was something for everyone to study here.

Students flew down to Quito, Ecuador and then to the Galápagos Islands to rendezvous with the ship. The class was split between two eight-day cruise legs. Joining the UW students for one or both legs of the cruise were a total of 20 Ecuadorian scientists from the Charles Darwin Research Center, Galápagos National Park, Ecuadorian Coast Guard and Navy, and ESPOL, a civilian oceanographic institute. It was a mutually beneficial enterprise: students benefited from the local expertise and the Ecuadorian scientists had access to the Thompson's state-of-the-art equipment.

Jennifer Nomura, a biological oceanography major, examined the daily vertical migration of zooplankton through the water column and collaborated with Diego Figueroa, an Ecuadorian doctoral student at Oregon State University, Corvallis, studying Galápagos zooplankton. "Diego was a huge influence,” Nomura says. "We were able to take his expertise from the area and mix that with the Ecuadorian scientists onboard and it made for a very far-reaching experience.” This international collaboration on the research projects exposed students to the level of cooperation that is often found on oceanographic research vessels. "I'm definitely a hands-on learner and the more experience I can get at sea in a real situation the more I am going to take away,” Nomura adds.

Along with their function as learning tools in the undergraduate capstone course, students made relevant contributions toward the field of oceanography with their senior thesis. Jennifer Glass, a double major in geology and oceanography, used the ship's multibeam echo sounder to generate high-resolution bathymetric maps of the northwestern volcanic rift zone of Fernandina Island. "This capstone project led me to investigate how our research on the Thompson could be integrated with previous mapping efforts,” says Glass. "The new maps are the highest resolution ever created. They are leading us to important discoveries about the undersea volcanic processes currently operating in the Galápagos Archipelago.”

During each 8-day cruise leg, students worked around the clock deploying plankton nets, collecting water samples, mapping the sea floor, and gathering sediment samples. The teaching team of five (four professors and one teaching assistant) was there for guidance but it was the students who were in charge of standing watch and ensuring that the cruise plans were carried out; however, the two-to-one ratio of students to professors on each leg ensured that students received individual attention if necessary.

Once back in Seattle, students spent the rest of winter quarter analyzing data and writing up their final reports. Drafts of the reports were peer-reviewed by fellow students and then submitted to the teaching team following journal submission guidelines. The culmination came in March when each student presented their findings and answered questions during a fifteen-minute presentation given during the annual Oceanography Undergraduate Research Symposium.

By modeling the senior capstone program after an actual research cruise, the oceanography department has created a learning experience in which the capstone experience is a synthesis of all of the skills the students have learned in the classroom and applied to a real-world setting. Being able to visit the islands that Charles Darwin drew inspiration from for this year's seniors was an added bonus. Nomura summed it up, "If you are a natural history geek at all, it's the cruise of a lifetime. It was incredible.”

To see the class's website, read the daily blogs and learn more about each of the student's projects go to:

http://courses.washington.edu/ocean444

Trina Litchendorf is a recent UW oceanography graduate whose research in the Galápagos examined the effect of pH on phytoplankton growth.

Images

Top: University of Washington students Natalie Tsui and Jennifer Nomura and Oregon State University doctoral candidate Diego Figueroa prepare to bring a plankton net aboard.

Middle: A lava heron pauses at the waters edge on the tidal flats of Punta Espinosa. Photo: Trina

Bottom: Jennifer Nomura examines her zooplankton catch.

Photos: Trina Litchendorf

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