Endeavor | Fantastic Voyages Near End

Summer 2018

IT HAS CRUISED THE WORLD’S OCEANS FOR 42 YEARS—more than a million nautical miles from the North Atlantic to the South Pacific and from the Arctic to the Black Sea—and now is nearing retirement. But the R/V Endeavor is still hard at work about 200 days each year, taking oceanographers and students from the University of Rhode Island and dozens of other institutions wherever they need to go to conduct their scientific investigations.

The 185-foot steel-hulled ship, owned by the National Science Foundation but operated by URI since its commissioning in 1976, was one of the first in the nation to be designed as an oceanographic research vessel rather than converted from a military vessel. It has carried a crew of 12 and up to 17 scientists on nearly 600 expeditions.

On its first operational cruise, Endeavor responded to the M/V Argo Merchant oil spill near Nantucket in December 1976. Thirty-four years later, in 2010, the ship was on the scene of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—the largest in U.S. history—in the Gulf of Mexico, where scientists assessed the spill’s environmental impacts.

Earlier that year, it delivered humanitarian supplies to the people of Haiti during a 14-day scientific survey of the seafloor seeking geologic evidence of the devastating earthquake that had just struck the region.

The Endeavor’s most notable journey may have occurred in 2006, when an international team of scientists, led by Robert Ballard, URI oceanography professor and discoverer of the Titanic, searched for ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. During that trip, professors Haraldur Sigurdsson and Steven Carey sought evidence of a massive volcanic eruption that occurred circa 1600 b.c. around the Greek island of Thera.

During the expedition, the research team hosted live educational programs that were broadcast to audiences at aquariums, science centers, schools, and other venues around the world via the Inner Space Center at the URI Bay Campus. It was the first time the Endeavor was equipped with the satellite technology to broadcast its activities in real time. In recent years, this kind of outreach has become a routine part of the ship’s agenda.

The Endeavor’s role in education has continued to grow year after year. Hundreds of students at the Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) have had their first experience at sea aboard the ship, and numerous early-career oceanographers have been trained on the Endeavor in how to be a chief scientist.

Plenty of undergraduates have gotten a taste of oceanographic research on board, as well. The ship has been used as a floating classroom many times, including when a summer class in ocean ecology journeyed to the edge of the continental shelf, where students went scuba diving to collect specimens, trawled for fish as deep as 1,800 meters, and conducted measurements of the physical characteristics of the water column. Another group of undergrads, led by oceanography professors Susanne Menden- Deuer and Melissa Omand, spent spring break on the Endeavor studying plankton at Georges Bank.

(Above) Melissa Omand, seated, served as chief scientist for an Endeavor cruise while pregnant by utilizing the capabilities of the URI Inner Space Center. Photographs on this and opposite page courtesy of GSO. Photo courtesty of GSO.

“For several of the students, it was a life-altering experience that inspired them to go to graduate school to study oceanography,” says Menden-Deuer. “I feel very strongly that the hands-on experience undergraduates get aboard the Endeavor is a truly unique opportunity that cannot be reproduced in the classroom.”

Omand also taught an undergraduate honors course last year that she called csi: Ocean, which included a six-day trip aboard the Endeavor. The class cruised to hot spots of marine life about 100 miles south of Rhode Island, where they used various state-of-the-art technologies to examine the relationship between the ocean’s physical dynamics and a wide variety of marine creatures, from plankton to whales.

“It was a new experience for almost all of them, and they were taken aback by how challenging it was,” recalls Omand. “But it also really elevated the significance of the class in their minds. The weather was reasonably harsh, and we dealt with some seasickness and equipment failure, which was not unusual. But they still had a lot of fun and bonded together.”

Omand also had the unusual experience of serving as chief scientist for the first time on an Endeavor expedition without setting foot on the ship. She was pregnant when the long-planned cruise occurred, so she spent every day in the Inner Space Center leading the research and interacting with the captain and crew by telepresence.

“The captain was very accommodating, the crew and science party were all amenable, and we got into a rhythm after the first day or so,” she says. “I don’t even think of that cruise as being one that I spent on land because I was so engaged. I feel like I was 100 percent on board.”

Local schoolteachers have also had the opportunity to travel aboard the Endeavor with URI scientists as part of the Rhode Island Teachers-at-Sea program, providing them with hands-on experience conducting oceanographic research that they can incorporate into their classroom lessons. In a typical three-day cruise, they spend a day at a shallow water site like Mud Hole, about midway between Block Island and Martha’s

Vineyard, where they deploy instruments to collect samples of sediment, water, and plankton to study in the onboard lab. They repeat the process the next day at a deepwater site to compare the samples and finish up on the third day at the Block Island wind farm.

“The main objective is to get teachers to understand how science happens at sea,” says David Smith, associate dean of the GSO. “Working at sea is a lot more difficult than working on land, and the variability of the ocean itself somewhat limits what we can do and observe about it. Hopefully the teachers can bring what they’ve learned back to the classroom and work it into their curriculum.” 

(Above) Birds-eye view of the RV Endeavor. Photo by Ryan Donnelly.

The Endeavor isn’t URI’s first research ship. In 1962, the university acquired the R/V Trident, a 180-foot former Army coastal freighter built in 1945 and later converted into a research vessel. When Trident arrived at the URI Bay Campus, it boasted one of the largest scientific laboratories of any research vessel in the country.

But the reputation of the Endeavor has far surpassed that of Trident.

In 2012, the Endeavor gained national recognition as the first ship in the U.S. academic fleet to convert its propulsion system to burn more environmentally friendly fuels. This was the first step in the GSO’s effort to “green the fleet,” which included the installation of more efficient led lighting and the use of biodegradable hydraulic oil and lubricants for its winches, cranes, and other equipment. It has made the ship one of the more earth-friendly academic research vessels in the country.

According to Thomas Glennon, URI’s director of marine operations, the environmental improvements to the ship’s operations are just one element of the Endeavor’s stellar reputation among scientists. In post-cruise assessments by those leading each expedition, the crew and the marine technicians who assist the researchers always get high marks. As does the food.

“It’s often physically difficult and can be stressful working at sea, so everyone always looks forward to a good meal,” says Glennon. “It boosts morale and keeps everybody happy. It’s rare that I don’t get positive comments about the food.”

Much of the credit for the high-quality meals is due to Chief Steward Michael Duffy, who orders the food, plans meals, and cooks delicacies that one wouldn’t expect aboard a working research vessel. On almost every trip, he makes a complete roast turkey dinner, prime rib with Yorkshire pudding, rack of lamb, and numerous fresh fish dishes.

The Endeavor was recognized in 2016 with the “Best Grub of the Year” award, beating out the other 18 vessels in the nation’s academic fleet. As with all ships, however, the Endeavor cannot continue operating in perpetuity.

Melissa Omand programs the sensors on her “Wire-walker” platform—a wave-powered profiler that allows her to monitor properties of the ocean. (Photo/Joe Giblin).

The typical lifespan of a large commercial vessel is about 30 years, and the Endeavor has lasted 42. But as normal maintenance costs increase with age—along with shipyard and drydocking costs—the National Science Foundation determined that the ship will be retired in 2020. When that happens, the ship’s title will be turned over to the university, and the ship will either be sent to a federal or state institution or sold on the private market, most likely to an overseas research organization.

Bruce Corliss, dean of GSO, formed a consortium to operate the Endeavor for its last two years and to prepare a proposal to acquire a new vessel, which would be based at the Bay Campus. The new vessel, one of three being constructed to replace retiring ships in the academic fleet, will feature improved science labs, more comfortable berthing, better workspace, and state-of-the-art technologies, including a dynamic positioning system, which enables ships to remain in one precise spot for extended periods.

“The vessels are being designed now, with input from the oceanographic community. It was a competitive process so we’re honored to have been selected to get one of them,” Corliss said. “We’re collaborating with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the University of New Hampshire, as well as 13 other members of what we call the East Coast Oceanographic Consortium, to pool our resources and I think that presented an undeniably strong case.”

The selection of the URI-led consortium to operate a new ship, Corliss said “is a testament to GSO’s 50 years of leadership in ocean science. This is also outstanding news for the state’s blue economy because the cutting-edge technology and exciting new opportunities for research, education and outreach that the new vessel provides will strengthen the Ocean State’s reputation as a hub for innovation.”

– By Todd McLeish

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