Science takes a cruise through the Gulf Stream

The next time you take a cruise and tire of lounging at the pool or strolling the deck, you can sit in on a lecture about ocean ecology, explore the migration routes of loggerhead turtles, or tour an atmospheric-sciences laboratory.

Royal Caribbean's newest ship, The Explorer of the Seas, boasts an onboard skating rink, a rock-climbing wall, and a store-lined promenade. But the feature that distinguishes her from all other cruise liners is that she is utilitarian - in addition to catering to a vacationer's every need, she will be sporting two fully equipped scientific labs.

The Explorer will begin her maiden voyage Oct. 28 and will make weekly trips through the Caribbean, from Miami to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The route will take her through the Gulf Stream, an area that is important to scientists' understanding of climate and ocean circulation. It is also an area, however, that has been incredibly hard to study.

Because renting a research vessel can cost thousands of dollars a day, researchers can rarely afford to go out for long periods. Thus, the little information scientists have collected is not an accurate representation of the area over time.

So placing atmospheric and oceanographic labs on a vessel that sails these waters weekly seemed an inspired idea, says Otis Brown, a dean and scientist at the University of Miami and one of the project's collaborators. "It's giving us a way to observe nature in an area that's very expensive to do any other way," Dr. Brown notes.

According to Ellen Prager, an assistant dean at the University of Miami, the $3.1 million investment is important. "The ocean sustains life on our planet, she says. "Understanding what's going on in the oceans and the atmosphere is important in understanding how we survive on this earth."

And, Dr. Prager says, not only are they "going to be able to get a data set that scientists have been dying for," but they can educate the ship's passengers about the ocean and its ecology, and talk with an audience that might otherwise be unreachable.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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