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Science Overboard!

When you look out over Lake Superior you are really only gazing at the lake’s roof. The physical, chemical, and ecological systems that churn beneath the surface intrigue scientists to the point where they lash hundreds of pounds of equipment to research vessels. Research teams endure seasickness, cramped quarters, and bone-chilling weather to probe the deep waters. Teachers, students, and special interest groups are intrigued enough by Lake Superior to board boats so they, too, can examine creatures living on the lake’s floor and measure water clarity far from shore.

At least eleven vessels on Lake Superior help passengers learn more about the lake’s biology, chemistry, and geology. Three of these boats operate out of the Duluth-Superior Harbor.

Blue Heron

The Blue Heron is one of three research vessels that operate out of the Duluth-Superior Harbor.

The Blue Heron has been a floating laboratory for the University of Minnesota’s Large Lakes Observatory for two years. It served in the Grand Banks fishing fleet until the federal government bought it through an incentive program to protect the depleted fishery.

Nigel Wattrus, Associate Professor of Geology at the University of Minnesota Duluth, conducts Minnesota Sea Grant-supported research from the boat’s former fish hold, which has been converted into a high-tech dry lab. With echo and seismic-reflection instruments, Wattrus is able to map sedimentation and the geophysical features of Lake Superior’s floor.

The Blue Heron is also a platform for studying the unusual dynamics of the deep and swift Keweenaw Current and monitoring lake trends. Although the Blue Heron has almost completed its fully-booked 1999 season, the Large Lakes Observatory encourages visiting scientists to consider using the versatile and well-equipped wet and dry labs to pursue research interests from coring to chlorophyll.

L.L. Smith Jr.

The L. L. Smith Jr. is also a university-owned vessel. The University of Wisconsin-Superior’s Lake Superior Research Institute acquired the 1950’s harbor party boat in 1984. It was renamed in honor of fisheries biologist (and first Minnesota Sea Grant director) Lloyd L. Smith, Jr., and outfitted for fisheries research.

For the past five years, the L. L. Smith Jr. has conducted some fisheries work under contract but primarily it serves as an educational vessel. Mary Balcer, program director for the Lake Superior Research Institute, and her dedicated “gypsy band of assistants” lead groups of up to 30 people on excursions over and within Lake Superior. Balcer’s modular teaching format allows educators to design a day trip that could include information and activities concerning Lake Superior’s biology, chemistry, and navigation. Balcer explains the L.L. Smith Jr.’s popularity by saying, “We offer a small student-to-staff ratio and a huge bang for the buck.”

Kathy Kusch-Marshal, a teacher at Nettleton Magnet School in Duluth, escorted her fourth graders on the Smith to study benthic species. “These children see this lake every day but many have never had an opportunity to be on it,” Kusch-Marshal said. “Studying the lake from a boat’s deck is a fabulous way for students to really experience their world.”

Lake Explorer

The Lake Explorer shares space with the Blue Heron and L. L. Smith Jr. at the Army Corps of Engineer’s dock in the Duluth-Superior Harbor. The Coast Guard originally used this boat in the Atlantic Ocean. It was the first vessel to arrive at the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster site and served as the command center for the ensuing search operations. Now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses the boat to support its Mid-Continent Ecology Division’s research. EPA scientists are monitoring the ecological status and trends in the Great Lakes from the deck of the Lake Explorer.

This past season the crew assisted studies centered on food chain dynamics, crustaceans, and zebra mussel populations. The EPA encourages visiting researchers to use the Lake Explorer’s laboratory and equipment and hosts occasional public tours.

Look in the next Seiche for information on the Hjørdis, another educational vessel that operates out of Grand Marais, on the North Shore of Lake Superior.


Ship Information


Blue Heron

Institution
Large Lakes Observatory, University of Minnesota

Home Port
Duluth, Minnesota

Length
82 feet

Captain
Mike King

Crew Size
4

Scientist Capacity
5

Major Function
Research

Web site
Blue Heron

L.L. Smith Jr.

Institution
Lake Superior Research Institute, University of Wisconsin

Home Port
Duluth, Minnesota

Length
59 feet

Captain
Chris Little

Crew Size
5

Student Capacity
30

Major Function
Education

Lake Explorer

Institution
U. S. Environmental Protection Agency

Home Port
Duluth, Minnesota

Length
82 feet

Captain
Floyd Boettcher

Crew Size
3

Scientist Capacity
7

Major Function
Research


By Sharon Moen
November 1999

Return to November 1999 Seiche



This page last modified on March 23, 2017     © 1996 – 2017 Regents of the University of Minnesota     The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.
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