Vote YES On Question 2 — ‘Higher Education Facilities’

No, I did not go to the Lovecraft Arts and Science Council because it’s Halloween: I was in need of a marine biologist and store proprietor Niels Hobbs is the only marine biologist I know. (As far as I can tell, Lovecraft literature and marine biology intersect at . . . tentacles.) If passed on November 6th, more than half of the ‘Higher Education Facilities’ bond will fund exciting new projects and buildings at the Narragansett Bay Campus of the University of Rhode Island (URI) Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO). So who better to consult on the upcoming the referendum than one of their seafaring faculty members.

Passage of this referendum would provide $45,000,000 to design, renovate, and construct new facilities and infrastructure including a new Ocean Technology Center building at the bay campus to support the evolving educational and research needs of the GSO and other related departments. We’ll need a new place for the awesome new research vessel we’re getting in 2021 from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Owned by NSF and valued at over $100 million, the Regional Class Research Vessel will be constructed in Louisiana, delivered to Rhode Island in 2021 and home-ported at URI’s Narragansett Bay Campus.

This is a signal honor — the new ship is one of only three such vessels. A URI-led consortium has been selected to operate this new research ship to replace the current, much beloved, R/V Endeavor. More details at the OSG site.

Mr. Hobbs is a lecturer/researcher in the Biology Department at URI — recently honored with an excellence-in-teaching award — and has twice gone to sea on the Endeavor. He is also a post-doctoral fellow with the E.P.A. Hobbs, and a cabal of close friends, founded the biennial Lovecraft convention, NecronomiCon. You can follow his science Twitter account @HaberoCaneres.

Niels and I spoke today at the shop in the Arcade. The following interview was edited for clarity.

Are you originally from Rhode Island? What is your educational background?

No, I was born in Denmark, but I’ve lived all over the country, but I’ve lived in Rhode Island now longer than anywhere else . . . not that that counts me as a Rhode Islander.

No, it doesn’t. When did you move here?

I moved here in ’98. I did my undergrad at the University of New Mexico and I did my Ph.D. at URI.

What has been your experience on the Endeavor?

I’ve gone out on cruises on the Endeavor. I’ve gone on two cruises: one a week-long cruise and one that was just for a couple of days, and then I’ve also helped staff the Endeavor for an outreach program as well. The week-long cruise was in 2014 so it’s been a few years since I’ve been out.

What is your area of study?

My specialty is actually coastal marine ecology, especially with invertebrate animals, but that was a cruise looking at pelagic [open sea] animals so going out and having huge trawl nets pulling up creatures — I think we pulled up a net full of creatures from a mile-and-a-half deep, which is pretty impressive. And things that you wouldn’t imagine are coming up. That was the longer cruise.

How does that connect with your focus on coastal marine systems?

That was connected with a course I was helping to teach for undergrads at URI, a pelagic ecology course which exposes students to methodology of oceanography. And so you use basically all the tools and the various kinds of nets and spend a whole week out at sea . . . I think we were about 120 miles south of Block Island . . . out pretty much in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean at that point, and essentially just exposing the students to what it’s like to work as an oceanographer.

Did you pull up anything unexpected?

The nets have these huge buckets strapped to the end of them, called codends, and you dump them out into these large tubs and you never what you’re going to get . . . just a bushel full of weirdness from the bottom of the ocean. Just incredible weird crustaceans and jellies and all sorts of amazing things . . . and really strange fish as well.

What have you heard about the new ship? And how do you feel about replacing the Endeavor?

I’m pretty sad to see the Endeavor go and I think a lot of people are . . . I’m actually wearing my Endeavor shirt today. So I think everyone is pretty sad to see it . . . I mean everybody that’s worked with coastal marine issues through URI, even if they aren’t at the oceanography school, have probably spent some time on the Endeavor. So I think everyone has a warm spot in their heart for the Endeavor. So it’s sad to see it go even if at this point it’s a pretty old ship. I think it’s finished it’s 650th cruise or something.

What are you hearing about the new one?

They’re saying it’s about three years away. I’ve seen the artist’s sketches of what it’s supposed to look like (see below). It looks like a modernized, slightly slicker version of the Endeavor. It’s supposed to be focusing on coastal near-shore research, but long-term research, so I think it can cruise for about 50 days. But it’s fully capable of mid-Atlantic, mid-ocean research as well.

The neat thing is, it’s really kind of an honor for us to be given one of these. I think we are one of three institutions in the country to be getting one of these.

Will there be tech on this that you’re excited about?

Yes, there will be a tremendous amount of tech. Now the ship is especially geared towards the development of remotely operated vehicles (ROV), autonomous underwater vehicles, so its capacity for that kind of technology will be far greater than what the Endeavor has had.

Is there an ROV on the Endeavor?

Not a dedicated one. But the nice thing about these ships is that they are platforms where you can install whatever gear you need. But the framework of the Endeavor was not made to support the substantial electronics, at least not easily, so this ship will be much better established from the beginning to support that level of technology. But they are all kind of plug-and-play so for any cruise you can bring on whatever gear you generally need.

Is everybody pretty excited about this?

Oh yeah. We’re in a really unique position in Rhode Island to house one of the world’s foremost oceanography schools and between the GSO, and a lot of what the main campus at URI offers, it really places Rhode Island in a great position to be part of what’s called the Blue Economy. So I think it’s pretty exciting.

Is next summer a NecronomiCon summer or a marine biology summer?

That’s both for me — but it is definitely a NecronomiCon summer (August 22-25, 2019) but a good bit of marine biology too for sure. Fortunately at this point, NecronomiCon has a good crew of people working on it so I’m going to be pretty busy doing research for most of the summer.

How is this going to play out at the Narragansett Bay Campus site itself? It seems like there will be a lot of construction that would get in the way.

I’m almost afraid to ask what’s going to happen because it’s going to have to be phased out. Of course Narragansett Bay is a bay full of facilities that can support ships. For a while when they last had to repair the docks, the Endeavor was parked up at Quonset and docked there for a while. So I suspect they will make use of other facilities like that.

So going out on these ships, is there great competition for these slots?

Oh yes, just to put the ship at sea is multiple tens-of-thousands of dollars a day just to run the ship, the fuel, the expertise crew and land-based support, so you have to write a pretty good grant to get space on these ships for research. One of the ones I was on, was part of a great program that Rhode Island has to bring educational opportunities on board the ship. And so the Endeavor, and I think the new ship is also going to have, a place for teachers to go out on the ship as well, to learn firsthand the science that they can bring back to their classroom.

Anything you’d like to add?

I think it can’t be overstated the remarkable strength that Rhode Island has, the opportunity that Rhode Island has as the Ocean State to be an international player in terms of all the facets of the Blue Economy, from military, to educational, to commercial, like the wind farms off the shore, and having one of the world’s leading educational centers for oceanography. It really places Rhode Island on the map, so this kind of bond is really important to that future.

I officially declare Niels-Viggo Hobbs a Rhode Islander!


Below is a rendering of the new ship.





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