Weatherbird Crew in Spotlight

By Vickie Chachere


St. Petersburg, Fla. (May 13, 2010) – When the R/V Weatherbird II was called into action to gather critical data on the effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on marine life, the Florida Institute of Oceanography – an organization which allows Florida’s marine science interests to work cooperatively – was right alongside it.


The FIO operates the Weatherbird II, the only academic research vessel of its kind along Florida’s gulf coast. The Florida Institute of Oceanography is one of the Florida university system’s academic infrastructure support organizations, which allows the 11 state universities to share technology, research and work toward the state’s common good in promoting education, economic development, and environmental stewardship. USF manages the institute on behalf of its sister institutions; College of Marine Science Dean Bill Hogarth serves as the FIO’s acting director.


While the organization has a vast set of responsibilities coordinate marine research and education activities, its single most visible symbol is the 115-foot, 194-ton vessel now carrying more than a dozen scientists from USF and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute to the gulf spill to gather data for federal authorities responding to the spill crisis.


The six Weatherbird II crew members on board play an integral role in gathering the water and marine life samples which will guide spill damage assessment and mitigation efforts for years to come.


Capt. Matthew White leads the crew, along with Assistant Captain Cliff Bare, Chief Engineer Larry Smith, Assistant Engineer George Guthrow, Chef Thomas Lee and Deck Hand David Coy. Not only do the crew keep the vessel in prime operating shape, but are responsible for handling the sensitive underwater technology that allows the scientists to gather water and zooplankton samples to do their work.


That’s not easy task, and a deft hand is needed to keep the ship and the scientific equipment on board is operating safely. Among the equipment the crew is charged with lowering into the water’s depths is the SIPPER, a rare, USF-developed underwater imaging system that has cost more than $830,000 to develop.


In addition, the crew is responsible for operating the net trawls that capture specimens and operating the winches and deck machinery, said Randy Maxson, the FIO’s Marine Superintendent. And there’s no discounting the need to keep everyone on board safe as the Weatherbird II ventures into dangerous waters.


“It is an exerted effort on everybody’s part,” Maxson said, “They are now out there very busy.”


In addition to the Weatherbird II, the FIO also operates the Keys Marine Laboratory, a unique university-level marine education and research facility located in the middle of the Florida Keys island chain. The R/V Bellows rounds out the research fleet anchored at USF’s College of Marine Science complex in St. Petersburg.


In 2009, USF was granted permission by the Florida Board of Governors to manage the FIO in an effort to leverage existing resources and enable the kind of timely research and education efforts now underway with the gulf oil spill.