Seaborne ecology

The environmental research vessel the 'Mediterranean Explorer' has been making a strong impact.

sea 88 (photo credit: )
sea 88
(photo credit: )
Andreas Weil and Shai Saroussi were recounting their last high sea voyage on the Mediterranean Explorer. "I was crying," recounted Weil, who owns Israel's first floating ecological research station. "I was praying to God," responded Tel Aviv University (TAU) student Saroussi.
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The two had sailed to Eritrea in February 2005 with a crew and researchers funded through the Israeli environmental non-profit organization EcoOcean, whose agenda is to supply researchers with marine laboratory equipment for environmental projects. Funded and built by Weil's father, EcoOcean helps researchers explore unchartered stretches of the sea where little or no environmental research has been done. The team has learned that not only the environment needs saving. Weil will never forget the return voyage from Eritrea. "If we had known that the waves would be six meters high, and not three as the radio reports indicated, we surely would not have gone out that day," he said, as the boat rolled across the calm Mediterranean Sea from Herzliya to Tel Aviv. The crew, laden with tales of never-explored islands, almost didn't make it home. The stormy sea was threatening to turn the ship and its crew into briny marine compost. Docking at the enemy ports of Saudi Arabia on one side or Sudan on the other would be impossible. Then suddenly, a thump on the deck told them that one of the three life rafts had flown off the roof of the boat. "Do you know what it means when a life raft opens?" asked Saroussi, eyes bulging. "It usually happens when a boat is about to sink." Fortunately, UK-born Captain Danny Schaffer, known by comrades as "The Sea Fox," was at the helm and instructed the crew what to do. Saroussi strapped a rope around his body and braved the pummeling waves. "I wasn't worried," said Schaffer coolly. "One just has to take care not to reach that critical point where things can go wrong very quickly." Back in the Mediterranean calm not far from Tel Aviv, Weil, Schaffer and Saroussi could laugh about the experience. The voyage was marked not only by storms but by the discovery of new marine animals and islands never before encountered by humans. Like Charles Darwin must have felt on the SS Beagle in the 1800s, marine plant researcher Saroussi recalled experiencing pristine coral reefs in Eritrea. Two weeks ago, the researchers and crew had a local mission: to extract their monthly pollution tests from the mouth of the Yarkon River. As the river spews out pollution in the form of fertilizers and pesticides, TAU graduate student Hadas Yaron measures its effects on microscopic aquatic plant life called phytoplankton. Yaron's project is particularly unique. Besides creating a baseline of chemical pollutants in the Mediterranean Sea along Israel's coast, she is also one of the first researchers to have her work funded by EcoOcean. It all started when Weil, originally from Stockholm, was looking for an outlet to channel his newly acquired Education from the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura. Prof. Sven Beer, also from Sweden, is a marine plant researcher who has known Weil's father from kindergarten. EcoOcean was conceived about five years ago when Weil junior and Beer were brainstorming about ways to create good marine research while putting Israel on the environmental map. Before you could say "anchors aweigh," a $2 million ship was being built in France with all the right specifications of a strong, sound and efficient research vessel that can be autonomous at sea for several days. Since the Mediterranean Explorer's maiden voyage a year and a half ago, Beer and Weil have been inundated with requests by researchers and students wanting to use it. And virtually every university in the country has a member on board. The vessel is normally berthed at the Herzliya Marina. "The ship is not a converted fish trawler," noted Weil, referring to the two dated government-owned ships that researchers can rent for a whopping $3,000 a day. By comparison, a day out on the Mediterranean Explorer costs a nominal $300. Large and spacious dry and wet labs were created in the boat to assist with location coordinates, temperature, depth and pH readouts. In the wet lab, various collection systems enable researchers to sample from the sea bottom or collect water samples at specified depths. The lab is equipped with storage facilities so that samples can be taken safely to terrestrial labs where in-depth analyses can be conducted. Researchers wanting to use the boat need apply to an EcoOcean committee that decides which projects are the most environmentally beneficial. As part of the deal, researchers on board agree to credit any research findings in part to EcoOcean. The boat has also been making a splash among environmental educators in Israel. The Heschel Center has been running a program which has already reached thousands of Israeli schoolchildren; the top of the class gets a day trip at sea as a reward. The ship sleeps about a dozen people, so when international scientists come on board they can be given accommodation. And a kitchen that is fancier than those in most homes in Tel Aviv means that the environmental sailors won't eat slop at sea. On this particular day, when graduate student Yaron wasn't orchestrating the collection of water samples, she was busy preparing Indian cuisine. The food, said Weil, proves that he has the best job in Israel. It is no coincidence that EcoOcean co-founders Beer (in Israel since 1974) and Weil (here eight years) are both Swedes, said Weil. "Swedes love to talk about the environment." As pollution scouts, they are always on duty. Yaron squealed with excitement, grabbing Beer's attention. "Look at the baby Medusas," she called out, pointing to the translucent lavender globs streaming across the belly of the boat. Some were as small as cherry tomatoes, others as large as salad bowls. The jellyfish were imported after the Suez Canal opened, explained Yaron. They originate in the Indian Ocean. As her Indian-inspired food simmers in the kitchen, Yaron vented her feelings about rising mercury levels in the Mediterranean Sea. But being an environmentalist isn't all about pollution. There's room too, for a few surprises. Beer recalled one such incident. "We were looking for pollution in Acre Bay but found two mating sea turtles instead." Jacques Cousteau, who translated the world of the sea through his gentle French accent, would have been proud to hear the sea through lilting Swedish enunciation. EcoOcean seeks experienced interns and volunteers. See