Summer REU 2017: Research on the Damariscotta River

A highlight of research on the Damariscotta river is the abundance of incredible wildlife, like the seals that REU intern Yoojin Cha is looking at through some binoculars.

On May 29, I joined 14 college students from all over the United States who came to Bigelow Laboratory for summer internships. Though I am working for Bigelow’s communications, meaning I am the only non-REU (which stands for Research Education for Undergraduates) related internship, I still can participate in the many incredible opportunities that Bigelow has to offer its interns, the first being a research cruise on the first Friday of our internships.

After four days of cold temperatures and cloudy, somewhat rainy skies, it was hard to believe that we would have good weather on Friday. Somehow though, we lucked out with perfect weather for our first science cruise on the Damariscotta River, which runs right next to the lab. Despite the early morning wake up (we had to be on the docks at 8:30, which is arguably very reasonable, but mornings and I tend not to mix) I was excited to get on the water and do some science. While waiting for our research boat, the beautiful RV Ira C, which is the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center’s vessel, we brought all the scientific equipment down to the docks so we could quickly get on the boat and head to our research stations on the Damariscotta. Some of the equipment was very fragile, with boxes full of glass tubes to be filled with samples and brought back to the lab, chemicals to do specific nutrient samplings, and most importantly, snacks (to be clear, these were in their own box, separate from the chemicals and sampling tubes).

REU intern Samantha Yesenia Calderon and Research Technician Jessica Waller carry science gear down to the dock.

A few minutes later the RV Ira C docked, we loaded her up with all our equipment and headed out to the stations after a brief but informative safety talk lead by Captain Robbie Downs. The water was incredibly calm, broken only by the bow of our boat as we cruised upriver to our first station. It felt good to be back on the water, but I forgot how distracting it can be. Dr. Fields was giving demonstrations on the CTD, an important scientific instrument that, among other things, measures conductivity, temperature, and depth (which is what CTD stands for), as well as demonstrations on the other scientific instruments attached to the CTD. My attention however, kept being grabbed by the quiet lapping of the water against the boat, the birds that flew overhead, and the unexpected seals that were lounging on a few partly submerged rocks.

Once we got to the station, it was full steam ahead as all the interns began to work at the separate stations Dr. Fields had set up on the boat. With all scientific cruises, efficiency and quality are the main priorities, so we had to quickly but correctly collect as many samples as we could, not waste any seawater (the Niskin bottles, which we use to collect water at certain depths, bring back a limited supply so we had to make sure that it was all used well), and do our tests before heading to the next station. Once completed, we moved onto the next spot downstream, taking a well-deserved snack break along the way. We stopped partway to the next station to visit a huge bald eagle nest and were lucky enough to see the bald eagle perched next to its nest. After that, we stopped by the seals we’d seen earlier to get a closer look, and a few of the interns (sadly I was not one of them) spotted a couple seal pups that popped out from behind their parents.

During the cruise, interns were hard at work with their data collection, sampling, and just enjoying their time on the water.

We eventually left, made it to the final station, and quickly went through the same tests and data collection as before. By that point we had all become very proficient (or at least more proficient than earlier) with using the instruments, so the sampling at this station was much faster than the first. We made it back to the dock, a bit weary from being out in the sun all morning, but rejuvenated by the fact that we had such a beautiful day to do a little science and exploring on the Damariscotta. As first weeks go, this was not a bad way to start an internship.

Eric Walton is a Communications Intern at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.

Summer REU 2017: Research on the Damariscotta River