Underwater work

Oceanographers say field is open to scientists, but it's not for bottom feeders

Oceanographers say field is open to scientists, but it's not for bottom feeders

April 27, 2004|by Chris Copley

Oceans are bizarre, almost like alien planets. There are animals with eight or 10 arms, worms and crabs that live in boiling hot water, animals that talk across hundreds of miles using high-pitched squeaks, volcanos taller than Mount Everest.

Oceanography is the study of the oceans and things related to them - from animals to kelp to tides to global warming and lots more.

Steve Webster knows a lot about the vast range of questions scientists and students ask about oceans. Webster is senior marine biologist and co-founder of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Monterey, Calif.


"You work in a place like this, you get questions like 'How many hairs does a whale have on its chin?' and 'What was that blob I stepped on over there?'" Webster said.

Despite living with oceans for thousands of years, humans still don't know as much about oceans as about land. Partly, that is because it's an ecosystem hostile to humans.

"Ninety-nine percent of the living space of the Earth is in the ocean," Webster said. "And 95 percent of the living space in the ocean is the deep sea. The majority of Earth's species may be unknown, because we've explored only 1 percent of the deep ocean."

For students who want answers and are willing to do the work, oceanography is a science with opportunities, answers and many branches.

To name a few branches:

  • Marine biologists study plants and animals and their ecosystems in saltwater. They study one or more species or maybe an ecosystem such as the Chesapeake Bay.

    "Habitats are important," Webster said. "People are realizing you can't save this world one species at a time. You can't save the whale if you don't save whale habitat."

  • Marine toxicologists study pollution in ocean water, animals, plants and sediments.

  • Marine geologists study the formation of the ocean floor.

  • Optical limnologists study the movement of light through water.

  • Acoustics scientists study the movement of sound through water.

Some scientists look for answers to questions at the boundaries of more than one branch of oceanography. Naval acoustics experts are developing ways to minimize the interference caused by submarine sonar on communications among whales and dolphins.

One area of marine science that is hot right now - and projected to be so in the future - is engineering, according to Jay Pinckney, professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

"The next 25 years or 50 years, the emphasis will be on AUVs - autonomous underwater vehicles," Pinckney said. "These are not ROVs - remote-operated vehicles. Those are connected by an umbilical cord to a ship.

"AUVs - you take them out and release them and they gather data and send it back on their own. The Navy is working on a prototype."

Webb Research Corp. in Falmouth, Mass., has developed an AUV they called the Slocum glider. It resembles a torpedo with short wings and an airplane-like tail. It can be programmed to dive and rise in the ocean for weeks or months at a time, collecting data on different layers of ocean water.

"There are going to be engineering jobs to work on, such as the instrumentation to put on these," Pinckney said. "Right now, they are able to measure temperature, salinity and conductivity. We could use them for mapping the sea's bottom, maybe investigating harmful algal blooms."

AUVs can pinpoint their position using the Global Positioning System. Since AUVs can report ocean conditions at a specific time and place, Pinckney thinks they have a future describing oceanic conditions as clearly and usefully as local weather stations track atmospheric weather conditions.

"No one would have thought the Weather Channel would be as popular as it is," he said. "I watch it every day. Now, if you can envision a few thousand of these AUVs out there delivering data - we could do the same thing for conditions underwater."

Pinckney said other hot careers in ocean-related fields include:

  • Open ocean, deep sea archaeology. "There are a lot of shipwrecks near to shore, and a lot more in the deep ocean," he said. "One of the oil companies was lying pipeline in the Gulf of Mexico and came across a World War II U-boat. It's in 3,000 feet of water. You can't just send down divers."

  • Aquaculture. "This is really big. Most of the fish I purchase in the grocery store are produced through aquaculture," he said.

    Pinckney said he tells students oceanography is a good career. There is a wide variety of work, for a variety of interests.

    "The first thing students want to know is if they're going to get a job," he said. "There are jobs out there. I don't know of a single person who's unemployed because they're an oceanographer."

    Not only are ocean-related jobs diverse, they are important. Vital, according to Steve Webster.

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