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On the high seas

Observers join Orpheus cruise
thanks to the Neil Armstrong Fund

By Hannah Piecuch

A cruise with a view: The deck of the Armstrong was a welcome change of scenery for those used to a typical office setting. “The shipboard camaraderie, the romance of the seas. Out there in the winds, the waves, the sunsets, you appreciate it all,” says WHOI Corporation Member Eric Anderson. (Photo by Evan Kovacs, Marine Imaging Technologies, LLC / Courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

There is a big difference between living on the coast and actually going out to sea, says WHOI Trustee Sam Coleman. “You get out of sight of land and the swells are much bigger, the water is clearer, the bird and animal life are completely different,” he says. 

In September, 2019, Coleman was among a lucky group of Trustees and Corporation members who sailed aboard WHOI’s research vessel Neil Armstrong with scientists and crew to test the deep-sea vehicle Orpheus in the canyons south of the New England continental shelf. “You begin to see why you can’t do this work in a laboratory,” he says. “You need to get out there and do the science.”

Led by biologist Tim Shank, the cruise was made possible by a $5.5 million-dollar endowment, known as the RV Neil Armstrong Annual Support Fund, which provides WHOI scientists with preferential access to the ship for 10 days per year—giving them the opportunity to conduct at-sea science, test new oceanographic equipment, and explore new areas of the ocean. As there were a few berths unused by the scientific team, it enabled a few supporters to experience a real ocean research cruise.

Being at sea was a world away from talking about ocean science at meetings, according to WHOI corporation member Eric Anderson. “I came away with a visceral appreciation for the WHOI mission and so incredibly impressed by the Armstrong team,” he says.

During the cruise, the ship encountered bouts of rough, stormy weather, which Anderson and other shipmates hadn’t anticipated. “This is dangerous and difficult work,” he says. “You’re on a ship that is pitching in 12-foot seas and you have this couple-thousand-pound vehicle you’re trying to get into the water and back out again. The communication and collaboration between chief scientist, captain, and boatswain is incredible. That’s when I really began to appreciate the magic of WHOI.”

When the ship temporarily lost communication with Orpheus during the second test dive, Coleman and the other guests felt personally invested. “All of us observing were caught up in the drama because there was no guaranteed happy ending,” he says.

WHOI staff and donors on the Orpheus test cruise, left to right: Kimberly Benson, Sam Coleman, Tim Shank, Dan O’Connell, Eric Anderson, and Emiley Lockhart. Other guests not pictured include Sara Dent and Tom Stair. (Photo by Evan Lubofsky, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

“Tim Shank was the spiritual leader and coach. We watched him work with the crew and the engineers to decode problems, interpret what was coming back and what wasn’t coming back, and problem solve.”

But the observers really became part of the team, recalls WHOI biologist Taylor Heyl. “It wasn’t like all the scientists and engineers were figuring things out in a bubble,” she says. “Our guests were part of the conversations.”

Heyl appreciated how much the guests engaged in all elements of the cruise. Few people grasp the ups and downs of creating and launching ocean robots, she said. “The donors were really with us in the emotional journey of how you get something into the ocean and back again. I think they really very quickly understood the value of what we were doing.”

As a scientist, Heyl cannot say enough about the Armstrong Fund. “The Orpheus cruise was invaluable in terms of the work that we need to do to study the hadal zone. For us it was incredibly valuable to be able to use the ship time to do something that would really propel our project forward. It makes WHOI stand out as an institution and gives our work a leading edge.”

Giving donors and members of WHOI’s board and corporation a chance to experience time at sea is invaluable, said Richard Pittenger, Special Assistant for Strategic Planning at WHOI, as it demonstrates how their support is put to use. “It’s important to note that even when the Armstrong is retired in the future, this endowment will still be there and WHOI could apply it to ship time on another vessel. The pot of money will still be there.”

Opportunities for naming parts of the ship are still open, including the stern deck, lab, and staterooms. 

Tom Stair, an incoming corporation member who also participated on the cruise, says the trip was unforgettable. “Being out on a research cruise on Armstrong should have been on my bucket list, but I wasn’t creative enough to think of such a life-changing experience.” 

“I came away with a visceral appreciation for the WHOI mission and was so incredibly impressed by the Armstrong team.”

—Eric Anderson, WHOI corporation member