Students cruise for credit onboard Pelican

By Elizabeth Miller
May 20, 2009;

ABOARD THE PELICAN IN THE GULF OF MEXICO — While some university lab work entails hours of scooping rat droppings or entering statistics into databases, other research assignments have students taking a cruise.
Aboard The Pelican, a 116-foot research vessel, LSU graduate students explore the coastal wetlands of Louisiana and the northern waters of the Gulf of Mexico. During the monthly research trips, students collect water and sediment samples for use in the study of everything from temperature and salinity to pollutant toxins in shellfish.
The Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, an organization of the 20 Louisiana colleges and universities that provides research and educational facilities on the Louisiana Gulf Coast, organizes the two- to three-day trips.
Students begin their journeys with late-night departures at the consortium’s research labs in Cocodrie.
The Pelican’s six-person crew steers the boat to the first research station, about seven hours offshore, while students and researchers catch a few hours of sleep in the ship’s dormitory-style rooms below. The boat makes its ways to stations located within 50 miles of the coast. At each station researchers use methods varying from throwing a bucket overboard to collect water samples to employing an onboard crane to gently lift and pull specialized machinery in and out of the Gulf waters.
Even with such strict safety standards as a no-tolerance alcohol or drug policy and the mandatory wearing of hard hats and lifejackets on deck, students say the time spent on the boat is a nice break from long days spent inside labs back on the Baton Rouge campus.
Ana Christina Garcia, 24, a second-year graduate student in oceanography, said she enjoys trips on the boat because she is able to interact with other researchers on the water. The Atlanta native is studying pollutant toxins in shellfish and uses the time between stations “napping, eating small snacks, catching up on homework and gossiping.”
The researchers said they don’t get seasick, almost chuckling at the idea because of the amount of time they spend on the water, but one crewmember said researchers new to the boat and visitors often spend more time in bed below deck then conducting research.
But with meals at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. cooked by a chef, veteran researchers and crew say the long hours and hard work are worth it.
Depending on their studies and the type of equipment used, some researchers have more work than others while on the boat.
Jennifer Lasseigne, 28, a doctoral student from Ricohoc in St. Mary Parish, is studying one of the fastest-growing threats to Louisiana’s Gulf Coast — hypoxia.
Hypoxia, commonly known as the dead zone, forms each summer in some layers of the Gulf when oxygen levels drop too low to support most life. It occurs because of algae growth stimulated by Mississippi River pollutants that are released upstream and flow into the Gulf. The decomposition of the algae consumes oxygen faster than it can be replenished from the surface, thus decreasing levels of dissolved oxygen in the water which is crucial to the habitats of fish, shrimp and other marine wildlife.
Lasseigne uses a box core, a metal machine that drops to the bottom of the sea, where it enters the mud and uses a trap door to collect samples of the ocean floor. She collects foramphonifera, a microscopic animal that leaves a shell behind as a fossil. The fossils are analyzed to determine oxygen conditions or past environmental conditions.
“We use it to see what species are alive right now in the Gulf and hopefully use that to reconstruct some historical timelines of the species,” Lasseigne said.
The Pelican costs about $8,000 a day to operate.
The marine operation is funded by grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research, said Nancy Rabalais, LUMCON’s director. adding the boat is but “a small part compared to the technical staff that I have to put on board, and the post laboratory work and data management.”
However, because of the specialized research done on Louisiana’s coast, the consistent results and the research experience gained by students, she calls the cost “priceless.”

LUMCON members
  • Centenary College of Louisiana (Shreveport).
  • Dillard University.
  • Grambling State University.
  • Louisiana College.
  • LSU.
  • LSU-Shreveport.
  • Louisiana Tech University.
  • Loyola University.
  • McNeese State University.
  • Nicholls State University.
  • Northwestern State University.
  • Our Lady of Holy Cross College (New Orleans).
  • Southeastern Louisiana University.
  • Southern University and A&M College.
  • Southern University at New Orleans.
  • Tulane University.
  • Xavier University.
  • University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
  • University of Louisiana at Monroe.
  • University of New Orleans.