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Mission Accomplished, but SDCoastEx continues...

posted Dec 24, 2012, 6:14 PM by Benjamin Grupe   [ updated Dec 26, 2012, 11:27 AM ]

Well, December 21 has come and gone and the world continues to spin1, so I guess the time has finally come to write a cruise wrap-up blog. This has been such a successful expedition on so many levels, it is hard for me to know where to begin.

All of our primary science objectives were accomplished. This alone made our week at sea a success worthy of celebration! Originally, we were scheduled to have eleven days on the R/V Melville, but after a series of rescheduled and shuffled cruises (other than our own), we ended up with just eight days. We set ambitious goals for this reduced time period, including revisiting almost all our CTD and multicore stations from July, more trawls and ROV dives than during our first cruise, and exploration of the newly discovered methane seep.

We were a science party that included twenty-four graduate students (eighteen from Scripps), and at least half of us will incorporate data from this cruise into our dissertations. We are chemists and ecologists, have thesis topics ranging from fault lines to squid eggs, and represent five of the eight curricular groups at Scripps. In short, much of our science was improved out of a willingness to work cooperatively and an ability to lend each other our own expertise.

Maintaining constant scientific operations, twenty-four hours a day, was possible because members of the shelf team helped Amanda's midwater team deploy nets; because CTD team members were willing to work the graveyard shift each night; because Sarah, Kate, Paul, and others would speedily remove tubes of mud from the multicorer, replacing them with empty tubes for rapid redeployment. Most of all, we required a highly capable captain, crew, and resident technicians, always willing to do whatever it took to achieve the best scientific results.

Gabe Kooperman, one of the many graduate students that took part in SDCoastEx, attends to the CTD before one of its final deployments. Photo by Emily Kelly.

From the outset of our expedition, we have tried to emphasize outreach and education, and that continued with blogs, online picture sharing, skype conversations with a classroom, and volunteer opportunities on our science team. Many of us are driven not only to be good scientists, but to find new ways of sharing our science with other future scientists and with engaged members of the public like you. We hope that our blogs have increased your interest in the ocean environment we all share and depend on. We hope that our connections to local schools have somewhere excited a sixth grader to consider a career as a marine biologist. We hope that the undergraduates that have joined our expedition continue on in their education, passionate to discover answers to mysteries that lie beneath the surface.

From a personal standpoint, as my first opportunity to be a chief scientist, this was a different cruise experience than what I am used to. Sleep depravation at sea was not a new experience. (Just ask my lab mates.) But the need for constant evaluation of our progress, clear vocal and written communication with captain, crew, and scientists, and frequent decision-making kept my mind occupied at most waking moments. It was a relief each time a piece of equipment came back on deck safely, and I probably spent too much time fretting about the schedule and whether we had saved enough time to visit all our stations. But really, being surrounded by so many amazing scientists, eager volunteers, and more-than-capable crew members and techs made my job easy. 

If my role was similar to a coach on a sports team 2, as Kirk wrote, then it is because I was able to stand back on the sidelines, putting people in the right position to be able to make plays. Superstar athletes can make even an average coach look great, and I was lucky to have a bunch of superstar scientists on my team.

Chief scientist Ben Grupe gets a little advice from seasoned chief sci and advisor, Lisa Levin. Photo by Kirk Sato.


This week in the journal Science, the ten biggest science stories of the year were recapped. Of course, the year’s biggest scientific breakthrough was the discovery of the Higgs boson, the elementary particle that allows all physical matter to have mass. This amazing scientific discovery confirms the standard model of particle physics, represents the culmination of the careers of hundreds, if not thousands, of physicists, and generally is regarded as “kind of a big deal”.

In the editorial, physicist Pierre Hohenberg is quoted making a distinction between what he calls “science” (with a lowercase “s”) and “Science” (with an uppercase “S”).3 In his view, Science refers to the big breakthroughs, like the Higgs boson, that make it into the media, that are the product of scientific activity and the advances of many, that represent monumental leaps forward in our understanding of the workings of the natural world. Little-”s” science is ongoing, plodding along, is not always glorious, and is filled with small steps forward that eventually lead to Science, which Hohenberg describes as “universal and free from contradiction.”

Our San Diego Coastal Expedition, you may be surprised to learn, will not be listed among the top ten scientific stories of 2012. If there were such a thing as the “top ten oceanographic expeditions of 2012”, perhaps we’d merit consideration, but for the most part our cruise will stay out of the media’s limelight. As much as we would like to convince ourselves of the universal importance of our individual research accomplishments, they have no direct bearing or immediate impact on 99.9999% of the world’s citizens.

However, “Science emerges from science”, and the work we have done on our two SDCoastEx cruises will add to collective knowledge of our oceans, especially off the coast of San Diego. Who knows, perhaps data or samples that we have gathered will someday contribute to a more complete understanding of how seafloor communities respond to low oxygen, the decline of ocean pH, or global inventories of methane at seeps. Someday, part of our work may contribute to a leap forward in Science. 

But in the meantime, we will continue our work as graduate students and professors, researchers and teachers, twenty-somethings and fifty-somethings. Over the coming months and years, as our scientific findings emerge, we will have the opportunity to share what we have learned with you. We thank you for following us this far, and wish you all a happy holidays and an exciting 2013 full of natural wonder and scientific endeavors.

As the Melville comes into port, the scientists of the San Diego Coastal Expedition can be proud of a job well done.
As the Melville prepares to dock, the scientists of SDCoastEx can be proud of a job well done! Photo by Kirk Sato.



1 I hope the failure of the Mayan Apocalypse has not been a surprise or disappointment to you, as it was to these disrespectful tourists or this lady

2 Sato, K. “College sports and Scripps science: Formula for a winning team.” San Diego Coastal Expedition website, 16 December 2012. 

3 Alberts, B. “The Breakthroughs of 2012.” Science 338 (6114): 1511,