Carl Wirsen

Oceanographer Emeritus
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution


Carl Wirsen spoke with Alex Dorsk in late 2011:

Carl Wirsen sailed on Oceanus more than twenty times from the 1970s to the 1990s as part of a research group that studied microbial life in the deep ocean.

He has fond memories of the Oceanus and her crew:

"She was my favorite vessel.  She was seaworthy and she rode well".

"The crew was an exceptional bunch of men and women...Sammy Pierce, the steward, was always willing to accomodate science however he could.  Sometimes we needed space to keep our samplers cool, and he would let us store gear in his walk-in reefers"

"Mike (Palmieri) and Paul (Howland), they were extraordinary seamen.  They operated in a way that let you do whatever work you needed to do, but also kept the vessel safe."

"Some of they crew were rough and ready guys, not-mess-around type of guys.  I remember the bosun Whitey (Joe Whitey Warecki), a former fisherman from New Bedford."

The Oceanus was essential for the research that Carl working with Holger Jannasch and his group conducted.  Before they started sailing on the Oceanus, they had been using the Alvin to get sediment samples from the deep ocean bottom and conduct "in situ" experiments.  They were able to get excellent samples with the Alvin, but time on the Alvin was limited, expensive and they could only go to a few locations depending on the depth.  The Oceanus was the perfect platform for expanding their research; the ship could get them to anywhere in the North Atlantic, sample from any depth and could handle a wide range of equipment.

Carl and his group worked with WHOI engineers to develop an array of samplers which would allow them to perform experiments on microbes from the deep ocean by bringing water samples with the microbes to the surface without change in pressure.  The samplers would be deployed by wire from the Oceanus and then fill near the bottom for a fixed amount of time.  They also used free-fall tripods deployed from Oceanus to study microbial processes in sediments which would rise to the surface at a predetermined time where they could be recovered by the ship.

Recovery was no easy task; first the ship had to spot the tripods on the surface.  Carl remembers that this became a friendly competition between the science party and the crew: "We usually had a bet, I think a case of beer, for who would be the first to spot it."

The research that Holger and Carl and his group conducted showed that microbial activity in the deep ocean was much slower than in shallow waters.  The effects of high pressures, low temperatures, and nutrient limitations caused deep-sea microbes to grow and digest matter slowly.

Their research was crucial for helping people understand the environmental impacts of dumping in the ocean.  For example, New York City dumped sewage sludge in the Ocean until the late 1980s.  It was the research initiated after the "Alvin Lunch" was recovered in 1969 and much follow up research by Holger's and Carl's group and numerous other scientists which showed that organic matter could persist for long periods of time in the deep ocean.

Carl remembers many of the quirks and good times from working on the Oceanus.  For example, there was "Random Man", the parrot of Russel Cuhel, a graduate student in Holger's lab who worked with Carl:

"Russel had a parrot, 'Random Man', who lived in his lab in Redfield.  He decided that Random Man should start coming to sea with us.  Most of the crew thought it was fine, but not everybody.  Whitey saw the bird and got to grumbling about him.  But later on we would see Whitey by Random Man's cage on the fantail.  He would look around to see if anyone was watching, and then feed Random Man a grape on the sly."

After some years of going to sea Random Man passed away.  He was buried at sea with appropriate fanfare in the Puerto Rico Trench during one of Carl's cruises on Oceanus.

Carl also remembers that the Oceanus answered distress calls from other ships:

"One time Oceanus answered a distress call from two young fellows sailing near Bermuda.  They were doing a two-one sailing race...for the first leg of the race one man would sail from Newport to Bermuda, then he'd pick up another man in Bermuda and sail back."

"Their keel was coming apart and water was coming into their ship.  The Coast Guard came out with a helicopter and first lowered men and then lowered down pumps to us to give to the two men in the sailboat...Those rotor blades weren't missing the stacks by much."

"We got the pumps to them and stayed around for an hour to make sure they were all set.  Paul Howland wanted to make sure they were safe.  Pretty soon it became clear that there was too much water coming in, so we took them aboard, helped them strip the ship of all their sailing gear, and abandoned it.  I remember writing an abandoned at sea note  'To Whom It May Concern Note' and put it in the boat before we left it."

"Those guys stayed with us for the rest of the cruise.  We put them to work and they loved it."