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Will FAU Deep 6 Harbor Branch's research vessels?

FORT PIERCE – George Gunther, pilot of Harbor Branch’s 204-foot Seward Johnson research ship, lets a visitor through a gate to where the ship is docked. It sits silently, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of 24-hour operations while at sea.

Two crew members sit on the deck watching freshly painted pieces of the ship dry. George casts a few wisecracks their way. They quickly reply with some witty remarks, accustomed to their captain's sense of humor.

A 10-ton crane casts a shadow over the crew as the water gently laps at the sides of the ship.

George takes a visitor on a tour, noting the ship can sleep 40 and can stay at sea for about seven weeks with sufficient food and medical supplies and a mechanism for making fresh water.

“We’re pretty self sufficient,” George says as he points out the machinery in the engine room that makes it all possible. After ascending a few slights of stairs, he comes to the navigation room atop the ship, offering a clear view of the water and surrounding facilities.

But George, a captain of Harbor Branch ships since 1993, is unsure whether his job will endure.

The ship logged 25,000 miles last year. But with costs that can exceed $30,000 a day for research, FAU may not be able to maintain the ships. A significant lack of funded research makes the ship and subs costly to maintain, according to Peter Tatro, director of Ocean Engineering and Technology.

“We are in the midst of reviewing active programs at Harbor Branch with active research of the university,” Tatro said. “Whatever decisions made will come from the leadership of the institution.”

One of these decisions could include the sale of the Seward Johnson, as well as the two Johnson Sea Link submarines Harbor Branch has used for research. The ship is the only platform from which these subs can be launched and retrieved.

It is still unknown whether the ships will be sold, but when a reporter visited recently, crew members were buzzing about word of a Fort Lauderdale company possibly coming to appraise the Seward Johnson. The sub crew, or “bubbleheads” as George calls them, shares the same uncertain concern.

If a sale is consummated, “it will change the entire identity of the institution,” said Don Liberatore, senior pilot of submersibles.

Many researchers are concerned, and more than 2,100 people have signed an online petition opposing sale of the Seward Johnson. The Web site deepseanews.com opens an article about the ship, saying, “A shining legacy of the sea is under threat in the state of Florida.”

Many crew members consider this ship the only research vessel of its class on the East Coast, though Tatro claims there are two more that can do the job. Even so, the Seward Johnson has an impressive record.

“We were the first U.S. flagship to have the privilege to go down in Cuba,” Liberatore said.

The ship and subs also have located the wreckage of the space shuttle Challenger, discovered and helped protect previously undiscovered coral reefs off Florida, found new species of sea creatures around the world and conducted research into eyesight of bioluminescent organisms.

Researchers have used the ship to help collect deep-sea organisms that may hold the cure for cancer. Many people also recognize the subs and crew from documentaries on the Discovery Channel, PBS and the BBC.

“We’ve logged some serious hours with Harbor Branch ships,” Gunther said. “You could write about almost every day.”

But according to ocean research Web sites, the Seward Johnson will be contracted to Cepemar Environmental Services, and it will work for Petrobras, Brazil's huge oil company. Tatro said it's a five-year deal.

Members of the crew say that would significantly reduce Harbor Branch's research efforts. But the bottom line is a key decider.

“Rather than watch an enterprise that has had success continue to decay from under-funded use of the ship, from a business perspective, there is a different demand,” Tatro said.

The future is as murky as some bodies of water the Seward Johnson has negotiated.

“I guess we’ll see what happens,” Liberatore said. “A decision to sell the research vessel because of the costs associated with it and the vehicles leaves the fate of any manned submersible program here unknown at the time."




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