Ask-a-Scientist, Part I: SOCCOM floats and science goals

Thanks to Mr. Wynar’s sixth-grade science class at St. Elizabeth’s School in Denver, Colorado for sending us some questions! Mr. Wynar’s class adopted the SOCCOM float “Hawk-eye,” which we deployed on Tuesday morning. (Hawk-eye is named for the pair of nesting hawks at St. Elizabeth’s.)

How does the Hawk-eye float work?

Hawk-eye can change its buoyancy — how much it floats — by moving oil from a rigid container to a rubbery balloon called a bladder. When it wants to rise to the surface, it pumps oil from this container into the bladder. As the balloon inflates with oil, it pushes some seawater out of the way. Since oil is less dense than water, this makes the float more buoyant, and it rises to the surface. Once Hawk-eye is ready to descend again, it pumps the oil out of the balloon, letting the space fill back up with water. It becomes more dense and sinks down below the surface.

A woman is sitting next to a plywood box containing a yellow cylindrical piece of equipment. She is wearing a backwards baseball hat over short-cropped hair, a dark mask, and a black tank top. She’s reaching into the box and drawing on the equipment with a sharpie; in the background is more plywood.
Back in warmer waters, Woods Hole graduate student Julia Middleton decorated Lizzy, another of the SOCCOM floats adopted by a school.

Hawk-eye is also equipped with a bunch of sensors. All of the delicate electronics are kept in a waterproof metal container that’s sturdy enough to withstand the huge amounts of pressure deep in the ocean. The different sensors on Hawk-eye measure the temperature, salinity, pressure (depth), oxygen, nitrate, acidity, chlorophyll, and particles of the ocean. When combined together, the data that Hawk-eye and the other floats collect help scientists understand how carbon dioxide moves in and out of the ocean around Antarctica.

Why do you let students name floats?

Letting students name floats is a great way to get them involved in real science — and hopefully spark their interest in careers in research, oceanography, or climate science! Many of the scientists on board are passionate about doing outreach to K–12 students in particular, so the Adopt-a-Float program is one way that we try to get schools involved. Several of the scientists here have told me how their interest in science was sparked by a visit or an interaction with a scientist at a young age, and how they want to be able to inspire the next generation of scientists in the same way (that’s also why I’m writing this blog!).

What specific things are you studying or observing?

We’re studying microscopic plankton called coccolithophores. They’re interesting for a number of reasons. For one, they build tiny little shells around themselves out of a mineral called calcium carbonate. Coccolithophores are one of the main ways that the ocean “exports” (or moves) carbon and other nutrients from the surface ocean to the deep. They’re also super abundant in this region — in parts of the Southern Ocean, they grow in such big numbers that the light reflecting off their shells can be seen from space! We’re trying to understand how coccolithophores are affected by the water in different parts of the ocean — and how they can, in turn, affect the water around them.

A man with dark hair and a beard is looking into a large microscope. There is a camera mounted on top of the microscope and he is adjusting the focus knobs.
Bigelow Laboratory’s Barney Balch peers through the microscope at the tiny critters we’ve collected from the sea.

To understand this, we look at a lot of different things, both directly and indirectly observing coccolithophores and other types of plankton that grow here. We measure a bunch of properties of the seawater itself like oxygen levels, nutrient amounts, and salinity. We also directly image plankton and other things in the water using microscopes, the video plankton recorder, and the FlowCam, which counts particles in a water sample. Lastly, we filter the water through different types of filters and then analyze the residue on the filters for things like organic carbon (the carbon that makes up living things), inorganic carbon (like minerals and the calcium carbonate that makes up coccolithophore shells), and chlorophyll.

Do you study any animal ocean life?

The little plankton that we’re studying make up the basis of the marine food web, but I assume you’re asking about bigger things, like sharks or whales 🙂 While no one is directly studying them, watching for marine life is a favorite pastime on board. When we were sailing through the tropics, we saw tons and tons of flying fish — some of them even ended up on the deck! We’re hopeful of seeing whales as we get further south, but no sight of them yet. But the past few days we’ve been visited by lots of albatross, which has been really cool, too.

Where was Hawk-eye dropped? Are there any landmarks nearby?

Two smiling men are standing at the stern of a ship, holding on to a black metallic cylindrical piece of oceanographic equipment. The man on the left is wearing a white hard hat, orange life vest, and green shirt; the man on the right is wearing a dark blue hoodie, a dark green life vest, and a white hard hat.
Barney and Charlie Brooks, a research technician from Scripps, get ready to deploy Hawk-eye in the early hours of the morning.

Hawk-eye was dropped off at 42 ° South, 150 ° West. 42 °S is approximately the same latitude as Tasmania, Australia, but we were pretty much in the middle of nowhere! The floats have to be deployed in deep water, so there are rarely (if ever) interesting landmarks nearby when the floats go in the water. The nearest islands to Hawk-eye’s deployment site (that I could find on a map) are Ahurei (over 1,000 miles away), Rangiauria (1,300 miles away), and the Pitcairn Islands (1,600 miles away). That’s about as far as Denver is from the Pacific Ocean!

Giuliana Viglione is a journalist and science communicator who has joined Senior Research Scientist Barney Balch’s research cruise to study the impact of coccolithophores in the Southern Ocean. On board the ship, she’ll be helping the team carry out experiments, document the research cruise, and conduct educational outreach with students across the country. She can be reached at

Ask-a-Scientist, Part I: SOCCOM floats and science goals
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