The Big Picture: Why and How We Study Deep-Sea Shipwrecks

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It’s critical to remember the objective, no matter the task. When working on an ongoing study like GOM-SCHEMA, the main objective could fade into the background when focusing on details. Our goals and objectives are the drivers behind everything we do out here, so why not have them fresh in our minds? Therefore, it’s a good time to step back and look at the big picture to ties all of the moving pieces of a research cruise to the whole study. It does make executing the small (but equally as important) tasks fulfilling.

The goal of GOM-SCHEMA is to better understand and profile the microbial communities associated with historic shipwrecks in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The interactions between these communities and the shipwrecks are ripe for discovery of microbial habitats and unique ecological niches. The  characteristics of the wrecks, specifically the materials they are made of play a role in establishing microbial habitats. To address questions regarding hull materials, we are visiting four 19th or pre-19th century wooden-hull shipwrecks and four WW2 era steel-hulled shipwrecks during the SCHEMA May 2016 cruise.

On top of characterizing microbial communities naturally associated with shipwrecks, we also are investigating the effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill on shipwreck microbial communities.  Through this work, and annual cruises in 2014, 2015 and 2016, we can ask,  if the introduction of hydrocarbons (related to the spill) or chemicals dispersants effect microbial communities on and around the wrecks, and how this may impact the preservation of the wrecks over time.

With these questions in mind, we selected our study sites based on their proximity to spill, the existence of a pre-spill archaeological investigation, water depth, and hull type.

Now that we have touched base with our goals, we can connect new participants in the study to both the big picture, and the intricate details that make up a scientific research cruise.

On this cruise aboard the R/V Pelican, our sample collection utilizes two instrument, a MC800 deep-water multicorer, and a CTD (conductivity, temperature, and depth). The MC800 collects eight (when it works perfectly) replicate sediment cores from depths up to 2000m.  The multicorer has a frame which engages the seafloor, and once that occurs, a weight stand is free to lower the core tubes into the seabed.  When this happens, a lid closes on top of the core tube, creating a vacuum, and an arm swings down to catch the mud from falling out the bottom. As soon as the MC800 is on deck, our team swarms the device and begins logging them, describing them, and preparing them for chemical and biological analyses.
The CTD (conductivity, temperature, and depth) profiles the hydrodynamics of the water column and collects water from any depth of interest using a Niskin bottle.  These, and the hundreds of mud samples from the MC800 are used to profile microbial communities with both molecular biological and biogeochemical analyses.

We are fortunate to collect samples once or twice a year at these sites to help further understanding of the effect of the spill on shipwreck ecosystems, but also to explore a unique microbial habitat in the deep sea.  The time we spend out here is small compared to that in the lab, and the work is hard, but it’s worth it to for the information we create, and to obtain the one of a kind samples we collect.

Only two more days left on the cruise. Stay tuned!

Zeima K


By the Numbers

The temptation on any research cruise is to focus on what is happening on the deck.  It’s only natural, because that’s where “the action” is.  Nothing says oceanography like a disk full of photos of gear going over the side, and hopefully, coming back full of samples.

Today was a great example of that.  We collected sediment cores from two locations near the U166 Shipwreck using the MC900 multicorer,  and water samples from the Anona and Viosca Knoll wrecks using the CTD.

But how we got to those sites, specifically how we decided when, where and why to be on one location vs. another is all a numbers game.  The sites are up to 150 miles apart.  It takes time to move the boat, and our science from one place to another.  We have specific windows of time when we can work tasks, so that adds another element of the numbers game.  That numbers game starts in the weeks before the cruise, through many conversations with the science party, and continues while underway, because weather can change anything.  Case in point, 4 hours after leaving the dock, we had our first of many schedule revisions.


Schedule revisions are just part of the numbers game. The operations plan is posted daily to keep everyone on the ship on track.

And then there are the samples.  All samples must be accounted for, logged correctly, and be consistent across multiple labs.  That takes time and planning, and labeling of hundreds of sample vials in the months before the cruise, and diligence during our sampling activity.


The fatigue factor is minimized by per-labeling and staging of all work areas. 

Finally, the fatigue factor, which is difficult to calculate, but is a known constant.  We do all we can with our planning on the numbers to make that factor as small as possible.

By my estimate, we are in the black with the numbers game, thanks to planning, practice, and teamwork.

Leila H

First Day at Sea

Yesterday was our first full day out at sea. After a day of organizing and unpacking the lab, we were excited to get some sediment on deck. We started early with water collection and filtering, which was followed shortly by collection of sediment. So far we have managed three multi-core deployments (an instrument that collects sediment cores). The multi-core brought us up some seriously picturesque cores. On top of that, turn over was quick and efficient. Which is all thanks to the wonderful crew of the R/V Pelican. Three multi-cores in a day wouldn’t be possible without the fine men and women of LUMCON.

Unfortunately seas were pretty rough at some points of our day. We were being tossed around in 6+ foot waves. Much of the science party, including myself, felt the unsettling effects of sea sickness during the brute of it. Luckily we were able to bear through and process our samples.

All in all it was a great day for science and the GOM-SCHEMA. We are looking forward to the next 6 days of sample collection.

Stay with us for more updates from various members of the crew and science party.

Zeima K

Anchors Aweigh!

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HamdanLab is all set to cruise on out to the Gulf of Mexico for the 2016 GOM-SCHEMA sampling season. Vials are labeled, shipping crates are packed, and hands are itching to collect and process gulf sediment and water samples. This years cruise is  exciting because we have three novice sailers joining us. HamdanLab’s valued undergraduates, Matthew Johnson, Beth Haley, and Sarah Brown will be lending a helping hand in collecting and processing samples. We couldn’t be more excited to show them the ropes. We even have the honor of being accompanied by a very experienced sailor and scientist, Dr. Robert Jonas. Dr. Jonas is not only a accomplished scientist but also holds the position as George Mason University’s Environmental Science and Policy’s Department Chair. Our enthusiasm and appreciation for our growing science party further engenders our excitement for this years cruise.

Stay tuned this week to read field blog updates about the cruise from our undergrads and more.


Zeima K


“A single leaf working alone provides no shade.” ~Chuck Page

As we prepare for our upcoming cruise, it is hard not to notice all the different people and roles that come together to bring GOM-SCHEMA to life. The help we receive every step of the way is extremely appreciated and taken into consideration. So we just wanted to take a moment to give thanks to those important key figures we rely on.


Roslyn Cress is the Environmental Science and Policy Department’s Financial and Grant Analyst, as well as a huge asset to HamdanLab. Without her, our purchasing process would be a nightmare. On top of being delightfully charming she is thorough and steadfast in her work. We thank you immensely for your time and commitment to Hamdan Lab.



Rick Smith and Nelson Granados of GMU’s Science and Tech Campus Facilities are shining beacons of teamwork and benevolence. Moving shipping crates down four floors and to the loading dock isn’t an easy task. Without their helping hands, I don’t doubt a few backs would have been thrown out. Thank you so very much for your kindness and help.



Lastly we would like to thank our lab manager, Fernanda “Phebes” Craig. She has dedicated countless hours to purchasing cruise supplies, organizing the lab, and packing the shipping crates on top of her analytical work towards the science of SCHEMA. Her sunny disposition and willingness to help are extremely valued and appreciated. We are  grateful to have such a wonderful person as our lab manager.


Those who support GOM-SCHEMA and HandamLab are extremely valued and appreciated beyond words. Our gratitude is endless.


Zeima K

Video Footage of Shipwreck Sites

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We’ve added new content to the website! With the help of a ROV (remotely operated vehicle), we were able to collect HD footage of the shipwreck sites in the GOM-SCHEMA study. These videos were collected in the Gulf of Mexico during a seven day cruise in July of 2014. We’ve edited a few of the  clips to provide a rare look at these shipwrecks. The video’s shed light on how we collect samples, the types of ships in the study, and provides great examples of artificial reef effect.

In addition we have added a “SCHEMA in the News” tab ,where we have compiled media press on the GOM-SCHEMA study.  Recently, public interest in the study has sparked, which resulted in coverage in local and science news outlets of the findings and great minds behind SCHEMA. Links to individual news outlet coverage will be posted on the new page.

Feel free to check out these clips and news articles under the “Research interest” and “SCHEMA in the news” tabs.

AUG Publishes Article and Video on the GOM-SCHEMA study


Today the American Geophysical Union published an article (link here) describing the GOM-SCHEMA study. The article was coupled with a fantastic video that provides a comprehensive overview of the study. AGU interviewed the study’s Co-PI’s, HamdanLab’s Dr. Leila Hamdan and BOEM’s Dr. Melanie Damour (also narrators the video), as well as Dr. Jennifer Salerno of HamdanLab. Dr. Hamdan and Dr. Salerno are in New Orleans at the moment presenting this study at the 2016 Ocean Sciences Meeting. The meeting was co-organized by the publishers themselves,  the American Geophysical Union, and also by the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography and The Oceanography Society. We are all very excited to see interest in the study and the study itself grow.



We’ve made it into the Washington Post, Times Picayune, Science News, Greenwire, the local NPR station, and a few other media sources. We are beyond ecstatic to get Mason research out there.

We would also like to extend a warm welcome to new friends of the site!



Hamdan Lab