Making waves: Western Flyer adds to world-class marine science hub at USF St Petersburg campus

The marine science research hub at the University of South Florida St Petersburg campus has added the most state-of-the-art vessel in its fleet, thanks to an ocean nonprofit on the other side of the country.

The Western Flyer traveled 4,000 miles from the San Francisco area, where it spent a quarter-century as the flagship research vessel for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, to the waterfront USF St. Pete campus, passing through the Panama Canal on the way.

The ship, named in honor of the fishing boat legendary writer John Steinbeck used on an expedition to the Gulf of California, will now add to its own storied history in marine research by becoming part of the USF College of Marine Science’s already impressive and still unfolding story.

The Florida Institute of Oceanography (FIO), a State University System-run research center located at the USF St. Pete campus, will use Western Flyer as the main vessel for its Peerside program, which offers real-world research experience at sea to marine science majors and others students interested in pursuing careers in the blue economy.

A moon pool in the hull will provide access to the water beneath the ship and allow the Western Flyer to deploy a remotely-operated vehicle capable of traveling 2 ½ miles below the surface to explore the depths of the Gulf of Mexico.

USF President Rhea Law on board the Western Flyer.During a July 12th event at USF St. Pete publicly unveiling the Western Flyer, FIO Director Monty Graham highlights the ship’s research credentials, celebrates its Steinbeck connection and looks to its future.

“The ship has a storied history,” Graham says. “It’s been used in more than 500 research missions. It boasts a remarkable list of accomplishments from mapping the sea floor of Monterey Canyon to identifying more than 200 new species, including a type of bone-eating worm named in Western Flyer’s honor…Steinbeck brought marine biology to nonscientists through his work so it is only fitting that we are here today marking the next chapter of Western Flyer. It’s a chapter that will see the ship serve as a floating classroom, providing students with a unique mix of at-sea and on-shore training and mentoring. This chapter will also shake up how we do science by using remote science technology between the ship and shore so our communities, mostly nonscientists, can also join the experience and learn with us.”

STEAM education  

Catalina Rubiano grew up dreaming of a career exploring the ocean as a marine biologist or nature documentarian, like the television personalities who hopped around the globe teaching about the wonders of the sea. 

After graduating college and seeing that a gig as a TV star was not imminent, Rubiano enrolled in graduate school at the USF College of Marine Science on the St. Pete campus. In the program, she got real-world research experience mapping the sea floor and studying ancient shorelines on expeditions on board the vessels  Weatherbird II and W.T. Hogarth. Now in her final year of graduate school, Rubiano will add to her first-hand research experience and mentor future marine scientists and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) professionals on Peerside expeditions aboard the Western Flyer. This month, she is on a  trip in the Gulf of Mexico to research ancient shorelines - blue holes and other deepwater areas that were land thousands of years ago and may have evidence of human settlements. 

Rubiano says, for new students, going out to sea can be a challenging, intimidating and uncomfortable experience that makes some change their career course. But the capabilities of the Western Flyer and the support and guidance of Peerside leaders and mentors will make for a more smooth experience at sea as students gain valuable experience.

“The value of going out to sea to develop these skills should not be understated,” Rubiano says. “It could be argued that no degree program in marine science or a related industry is complete without at least one research cruise under your belt. But with how expensive and rare spaces on research vessels are, it’s vital to have programs to create these opportunities.”

Cutting-edge technology

Built in 1996, the Western Flyer spent 25 years as the flagship research vessel of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute before that California-based private, non-profit oceanographic research center granted the ship to the FIO in 2022. The 117-foot, twin-hulled ship has sleeping quarters for 16 scientists and a crew of 10, allowing for longer research trips in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. But researchers are most excited about the moon pool in the ship’s hull that will allow the ship to deploy remotely-operated research vehicles capable of exploring down to 2 ½ miles below the surface. The Western Flyer's moon pool allows the research vessel to deploy a remotely-operated vehicle to explore the ocean's depths.

Those remotely-operated vehicles, or ROVs, are operated from a control room inside the Western Flyer and will be able to transmit video and data to the ship and to shore. Currently, the vehicle for the Western Flyer is under construction and expected to be in operation in Spring 2024, says Nicole Raineault, the chief scientist at the FIO.

Raineault says the remotely-operated vehicle will be able to reach some of the deepest areas of the Gulf of Mexico, venturing into deep-water seeps, brine pools and blue holes. That capability will advance research of deep-sea organisms, the climate history of storms, ancient shorelines and deep-sea coral, including the effects that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and temperature and salinity changes have on that coral. The ROV will also help with mapping the sea floor.

In addition to marine scientists, the ROV will offer opportunities for students interested in learning to pilot remotely-operated vehicles and for engineering students who will be able to design sensors and equipment for the vehicle.

 Building on the momentum

The USF College of Marine Science already ranks among the top 10 marine science programs. Its St. Pete campus home is right in the middle of a hot spot for oceanographic research and the blue economy. There’s the St. Petersburg Innovation District, which manages the Maritime and Defense Technology Hub, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Now, the arrival of the Western Flyer and the burgeoning Peerside program will help bolster the research, innovation and workforce development opportunities emanating from the campus.

“We now have USF uniquely positioned to make a big impact in this area,” USF President Rhea Law says during the July 12th event.

The U.S. Navy Department of Naval Research has taken notice, using workforce development funding to put  $1.5 million toward the construction of the remotely-operated vehicle for the Western Flyer and up to $14.5 million over five years toward Peerside, a program that also receives financial support from the nonprofit Schmidt Ocean Institute and Schmidt Family Foundation.

State officials in Tallahassee also plan to build on the success, literally. The state budget approved during the 2023 session includes $24.3 million to fund the first phase of planning and construction of the Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences Research and Teaching Facility on the St.Pete campus. The facility will house a Center of Excellence in Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences.

For more information, go to Florida Institute of Oceanography and USF College of Marine Science.
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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.