Marine Studies Initiative

Total Immersion

For an elite handful of Oregon State researchers and students in pharmacy, biology, oceanography, zoology, fisheries, marine resources management — even maritime engineering — their other lab is underwater.

By Lee Anna Sherman

In her white coat, safety goggles and latex gloves, Kerry McPhail looks every inch the medicinal chemist at work in her Oregon State University lab. Amidst dozens of molecular diagrams taped to dun-colored walls, the College of Pharmacy researcher grows colonies of microbes in petri dishes and then runs their extracts through the super-conducting magnet of an NMR spectrometer — a key step in analyzing the structures of natural compounds with potentially curative powers.

But lab work is only half of this researcher’s scientific persona. Before she can test them, she has to collect them.

That’s why McPhail periodically undergoes a superhero-like transformation, trading her staid white lab coat for a sleek black wetsuit, strapping on a mask, a scuba tank and a pair of bright-yellow fins. Then, tucking a mesh collection bag and a supply of 1-gallon Ziploc bags into her dive belt, she splashes into some of the planet’s most remote — and sometimes dangerous — waters to collect rare marine organisms. She once bloodied her knuckles on coral cliffs when currents pumped her through a cavernous reef in Panama. On another dive, this one off the coast of Saudi Arabia, she felt a rush of water pressure and glimpsed a big tail out of the corner of her eye. Breathing easy to relax, she was relieved to find herself staring into the curious eyes of a bottlenose dolphin (“like a dog wanting to play”). And in the surging seas of South Africa, she was horrified when she dropped a hard-won specimen. Against all odds she managed to recover the rare organism from the rocky reef, still zipped tightly into its plastic bag. These and the other precious marine organisms she collects around the world may hold the secrets to curing a small child’s brain cancer or a young mother’s malaria.

Laser beams are used to measure groupers in the Grouper Moon study. (Photo: 2009 Brice Semmens, Grouper Moon Project)
Laser beams are used to measure groupers in the Grouper Moon study. (Photo: 2009 Brice Semmens, Grouper Moon Project)

For an elite handful of Oregon State researchers and students in pharmacy, biology, oceanography, zoology, fisheries, marine resources management — even maritime engineering — their other lab is underwater. They dive in the Cayman Islands and the Red Sea, in South Africa’s

Nelson Mandela Bay and Oregon’s Yaquina Bay, in Central America, the Bahamas and Antarctica, in the Klamath River and the Virgin Islands. They dive to find chemical compounds for fighting aggressive cancers and deadly pathogens. They investigate the crashing of fisheries and the dying of corals. They track the spread of invasive lionfish in the Atlantic and Caribbean. They assess the impact of excess carbon beneath polar ice, study the life cycle of salmon parasites and monitor marine reserves and “dead zones” off the Pacific Coast.

In 2012, some 55 OSU faculty and students made nearly 2,000 official dives for science and training, logging close to 1,600 hours underwater.

Squirts and Sharks

In July, McPhail boarded an international flight at PDX en route to South Africa on a harrowing mission: to collect specimens of an extremely rare species of cancer-fighting “tunicate” (sedentary, sac-like marine organisms known colloquially as “sea squirts” for sucking in and squirting out seawater as they feed) in Algoa Bay, where waters surge wildly through narrow channels and hidden caverns.

“The water in the bay is pretty crazy,” says McPhail. “The open ocean bumps this tabletop reef, smashes against the edge and rolls over it, creating massive surge. It’s some of the trickiest diving in the world.”

Pharmaceutical researchers worldwide have been excited about this tunicate’s cancer-killing compounds ever since McPhail and fellow researchers from Rhodes University discovered the organism in 2004. Tunicates, which come in a rainbow of garish hues and a phantasmagoria of quirky shapes, ward off predators by manufacturing potent poisons. This new species of Lissoclinum ascidian, its white luminescence giving it a ghostly glow in the ocean, produces a compound that kills human lung cancer cells in test tubes. These bioactive chemicals are named “mandelalides” in tribute to the great South African leader Nelson Mandela.

At Lee Stocking Island in the Bahamas, student researcher Darren Johnson collects juvenile coral reef fish for the Mark Hixon Lab in 2006. (Photo: Nikita Rolle)
At Lee Stocking Island in the Bahamas, student researcher Darren Johnson collects juvenile coral reef fish for the Mark Hixon Lab in 2006. (Photo: Nikita Rolle)

By 2013, however, the collected specimens had been depleted. Scientists needed more tissue to continue characterizing the organism’s extraordinarily complex natural-products chemistry. So McPhail and Shirley Parker-Nance, a tunicate taxonomist from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, met at the bay near Port Elizabeth to mount a hunt.

The challenges were steep. For one thing, the organism is super-scarce. It has been found only in this one spot on Earth, clinging to corals on a reef called White Sands. Second, powerful surges and treacherous currents rip through the reef, a maze of underwater cliffs and chasms at the intersection of the Indian and Atlantic oceans, a great mixing of big waters. And third, this tunicate dwells exclusively on the shadowy overhangs of deep, rocky ledges. Under those very ledges, in dark caverns and hidden crevices, skulks the ragged-tooth shark, Carcharias taurusm. Despite its extensive dentation, which resembles rows and rows of ivory ripsaws, these sharks are “surprisingly bashful,” according to McPhail.

Bumping into the odd shark, she concluded, is a chance worth taking for science. OSU’s Office of Research Integrity aims to keep those risks as near to zero as humanly possible. That’s where veteran diver Kevin Buch comes in. As the university’s diving safety officer Buch (pronounced Buuk) runs the intensive training and ongoing oversight required to mitigate the inherent hazards of doing science underwater.

“If you compare it to other types of professional activities, scientific diving is statistically very safe,” says Buch, who was recruited two years ago by famed reef ecologist Mark Hixon and now works to strengthen and expand OSU’s scientific diving program. “Scientific diving accident rates are lower than they are in commercial diving. We haven’t had any serious problems at OSU, but I’ve been on projects in the past where there were major injuries and fatalities. Fortunately, those kinds of things are very rare. But they can happen. So it’s not anything you want to take lightly.”

Unlike diving done just for fun, scientific diving requires complex multitasking. “When you’re a scientific diver, you’re considered a professional diver in the same realm as military divers, public safety divers, rescue divers, commercial divers,” says Buch, who worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and then at Texas A&M before coming to Oregon State. “You’re actually doing work underwater — identifying and counting animals and plants, measuring and laying grids, recording data, collecting samples, running experiments. You’re task-loaded. So the diving itself has to be second-nature.”

On Ghurab Reef in the Red Sea off the coast of Saudi Arabia, Kerry McPhail's team collects cyanobacteria and sponges for natural products drug discovery. (Photo: Kerry McPhail)
On Ghurab Reef in the Red Sea off the coast of Saudi Arabia, Kerry McPhail’s team collects cyanobacteria and sponges for natural products drug discovery. (Photo: Kerry McPhail)

Safe scientific diving begins with a minimum of 100 hours of classroom instruction, pool practice and outdoor field experience. In places like Lake Woahink in Florence, Hood Canal in Washington state and the OSU pier at Newport, OSU divers in training hone their skills. Those who finish the program and pass the testing earn scientific diver certification by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. Only then do they become eligible to dive with researchers in OSU’s scientific diving program.

Last February, a dozen research divers clustered around Buch as he prepped them to conduct a mock reef census inside a pair of mega-aquariums — one called Orford Reef, the other Halibut Flats — that simulate real-life ecosystems along the Oregon coast. Under a contract signed last year by OSU and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Buch oversees diver training for underwater monitoring in Oregon’s five marine reserves. Conducted in collaboration with the Oregon Coast Aquarium, the training takes place in the aquarium’s 26-foot-deep tanks, which each holds nearly a million gallons of triple-filtered seawater. They are ideal places to practice fish surveys and benthic transects (counting bottom-dwelling organisms inside a measured area) before actually plunging into the cold, murky waters of Redfish Rocks, Cascade Head and the other three reserves.

“It’s great to train in a controlled environment — no current, no surf, and nobody can get lost,” Buch observed, his voice mixing with a steady slosh of water, punctuated now and then by a splash from the “dump bucket,” which filled and emptied, filled and emptied, to mimic ocean surge inside the tanks. As the divers gathered up their waterproof whiteboards and tape measures, they looked down and saw dozens of pouty rockfish — orange vermillions, yellow canaries, olive-brown coppers — suspended lazily in water that was bluer than blue. Between giant kelp fronds, a sturgeon cruised by, its shadow grazing the sandy bottom. A halibut popped up to look around. Buch double-checked his gear. Then, in a froth of bubbles, he slipped into the water with his trainees.

A Winter’s Tale

A full moon rises over Little Cayman Island, casting a river of light across the deep-blue Caribbean and setting in motion an ancient pattern of procreation, the renewal of life growing ever more urgent for a once-abundant species, now endangered. As the silvery orb climbs high in the winter sky, thousands of Nassau groupers (Epinephelus striatus) suddenly feel evolution’s tug. These big, striped fishes — which typically live solitary lives among widely scattered coral reefs — begin to swim in one direction, all destined for a single point, a promontory at the west end of the 12-mile-long island, where they will bring forth a new generation in frenzied releases of eggs and sperm.

Alexandra Davis, a Ph.D. student in the Mark Hixon Lab, conducts a fish survey off Cape Eleuthera in the Bahamas in 2013. (Photo: Lillian Tuttle)
Alexandra Davis, a Ph.D. student in the Mark Hixon Lab, conducts a fish survey off Cape Eleuthera in the Bahamas in 2013. (Photo: Lillian Tuttle)

For eons, Nassau groupers have gathered at this very promontory to spawn, always on the first full moon 30 days after the Winter Solstice, as regular as clockwork, explains OSU fisheries biologist and scientific diver Scott Heppell. This precision and predictability was a bonanza for a couple of local fishermen when they discovered the aggregation last decade. In 2001 and 2002, the two men, using nothing more than hand lines dropped over the side of a small boat, hauled in 4,000 groupers from the west-end aggregation. “These two guys caught two-thirds of Little Cayman Island’s entire adult population in two seasons,” laments Heppell. “For a fish seeking a mate, aggregation is a great adaptation. But for bipedal humans with big brains, the spawning grounds are easy pickings.”

The decimation spurred the Cayman government’s Marine Conservation Board to act. After placing an emergency ban on taking fish from aggregations, the government joined forces with an organization called the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) to study spawning groupers on Little Cayman Island. OSU’s Heppell is one of eight divers on the international team for the project, poetically named Grouper Moon.

Laws of Conservation

When Heppell pinches his nose and drops backward off a research boat tethered to Little Cayman Island, he sinks into the liquid equivalent of, say, an Andean rainforest — except it’s turned upside-down. Instead of ascending into thin air, the cliff faces here disappear into dark water 4,000 feet below. Marine organisms thrive at distinct levels, just as terrestrial organisms do. In shallow water suffused with light, soft corals, sea fans and small reef fish grow and drift and swim. Deeper on Little Cayman’s famously beautiful vertical rock face called Bloody Bay Wall, those cravers of photosynthesis give way to organisms adapted to darker, colder places — big barrel sponges, lobsters, sea urchins, crabs. Cruising by are eagle rays and sea turtles, like birds in flight.

Every winter for 10 years, Heppell and his team have been diving into the groupers’ sweet spot (90 to 110 feet deep) at their ancestral aggregation site off the western tip of Little Cayman. A place where two strong currents collide, the site is prone to big surf and swirling eddies. Diving there can be difficult and dangerous.

“Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, you’re going to the tropics; you’re going to be sitting on the beach sipping Mai Tai’s,’” says Heppell, the chair of OSU’s Diving Control Board, which monitors all scientific diving activities for the university. “But this is hardcore research diving. It’s not to be trivialized.”

Working with the Cayman Islands Department of Environment, the divers use lasers, underwater hydrophones and satellite telemetry to count, measure and track the fish, making three dives daily (including one night dive) over a 10-day period each winter.  It adds up to hundreds of dives.

Learning to Dive

Growing up in California, Kyle Neumann surfed, snorkeled and swam competitively. Scuba diving just seemed like a natural fit, so he took OSU’s scientific diving course, earned his credentials and will travel to the Caribbean this summer with Ocean Exploration Trust and Robert Ballard of Titanic fame.Read more…

The results of the fishing ban have been dramatic, their studies show. From a low of 2,500 fish in 2003 when the ban was imposed, the population had rebounded to about 6,000 by 2013. In response to the clear evidence, the Cayman Parliament passed legislation in early 2014 — the Marine Conservation Law — which will protect grouper aggregations into perpetuity.

“Fishermen can still catch grouper. They just can’t catch them when they’re spawning,” says Heppell. “We’ve gone from basic science all the way to new laws in just 10 years. The Cayman government has shown great leadership in smart, natural resource management and conservation in the Caribbean.”

Dinner Is Served

It’s the unusual dean’s assistant who not only cooks a scientific team’s dinner, but catches it, too. Last year, after each day’s dive to collect sponges and cyanobacteria (a phylum of photosynthesizing bacteria formerly known as blue-green algae) in the Red Sea, Yousef Syamek of King Abdulaziz University would spear a string of hareed (parrotfish), grill them over a hibachi in his hotel room, and serve the hot, crispy fish with mounds of rice, tomatoes, cucumbers and fresh-baked Lebanese bread to Kerry McPhail, OSU graduate student Jeff Serrill and the Saudi Arabian scientists on her hungry team. Once sated, they would pile into a van and head out, motoring through the night toward the next morning’s dive site while eating fresh dates for dessert.

Undergraduate Allison Stringer collects samples in the Bahamas for a study on invasive lionfish. (Photo: Lillian Tuttle)
Undergraduate Allison Stringer collects samples in the Bahamas for a study on invasive lionfish. (Photo: Lillian Tuttle)

At the end of the expedition, when it came time for McPhail and her collaborator on the project, medicinal chemist Diaa Youssef, to present their findings to scientists at King Abdulaziz University, she underwent yet another transformation in attire, this time donning a headscarf and an abayah, the full-length black robe worn by Muslim women in some Arabic countries. The targets of the trip were new species of cyanobacteria, including those in the genus Symploca and the genus Leptolyngbya, now undergoing analyses in Saudi Arabia for their cancer-fighting potential.

On the other side of the Earth, another novel cyanobacteria species belonging to a new genus still being described is in demand by the National Cancer Institute and scientists such as OSU pharmacologist Jane Ishmael. Their target is a potent compound called coibamide, discovered in 2008 and named for Panama’s Coiba National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Gulf of Chiriqui. Working with the National Institutes of Health-funded International Cooperative Biodiversity Group in Panama, McPhail — one of the species’ discoverers — has made dozens of dives into the Pacific from the now-retired research vessel Urraca of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. She collected samples of the purplish-red, hair-like organism, which has shown powerful effects against breast and colon cancers as well as glioblastoma, a very aggressive brain cancer for which there are currently few treatment options.

Despite the beauty of the tropical setting, getting these rare specimens is no small feat. “The water is really beautiful there — a very blue oceanic system, pristine,” says McPhail. “You can see whale sharks there. The reef structure is beautiful, too — very high profile. But conditions are very rough. When I was there in July, there was a lot of runoff; it was violent and turbulent. The cyanobacteria grow in gullies or channels. The water comes ripping through. You get pumped down this chute. If you try to collect or hold on at the wrong moment, your knuckles get shredded.”

Another Panamanian reef is known among divers as Montana Rusa, the Rollercoaster. “The open sea is hitting it constantly, creating all this swell and surge,” McPhail says. “People get seasick 70 feet down.”

Back on the boat, McPhail and her teammates transfer strands of the organism, a few at a time, into tissue-culture vials filled with 15 milliliters of water for transport to labs in Panama, Oregon and San Diego, where the scientists will continue investigating its remarkable cancer-killing powers.


More examples of research through scientific diving:

Rebecca Vega Thurber studies viruses in underwater corals.

Stephanie Green is developing control measures for invasive lionfish in the Caribbean.

Andrew Thurber dives below Antarctic ice to understand seafloor energy and nutrient cycles.