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Atlantic Explorer makes a nostalgic visit to Ft.Pierce

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of April 24, 2014)
Photo: The research vessel Atlantic Explorer docked at the Port of Fort Pierce.

A famous research ship with local ties made a nostalgic visit to the Port of Fort Pierce a couple of weeks ago.

Now called the Atlantic Explorer, the 170-foot-long, 300-metric-ton vessel was known in its glory days as the Edwin Link, a research ship sailing out of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution that was the scene of incredible scientific discoveries and historic underwater surveys.

“I don’t know where to start, there have been so many,” said George Gunter, who has captained the ship for 15 years, when asked to recount some of the epic events that have taken place on the vessel itself or miles below the ocean surface in the Johnson Sea Link Submersibles that were its chief scientific tool during Harbor Branch days.

“She has sailed the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the North and South Atlantic and the South Pacific and tons of notable discoveries were made on those voyages,” Gunter said.

Scientists, engineers and former sub pilots who served and conducted research aboard the ship when it was at Harbor Branch came from up and down the coast to revisit it and reminisce about old times while it was in port.

“I have been on more scientific expeditions than I can remember and this is my favorite ship, bar none,” said Edie Widder, who served as chief scientist aboard the vessel on 17 voyages, including a 2004 expedition in the Gulf of Mexico she calls “the best of my life.”

On that voyage, Widder and the sub pilots deployed at new kind of underwater camera and electronic lure along the shore of a fantastic underwater formation called the Brine Pool, which is a lake of super-dense salt water thousands of feet down that has a defined shoreline and salt rivers running into it.

Widder thought large predators might patrol the shores of the underwater “lake” and, in fact, only seconds after she turned the spinning blue electronic lure on for the first time, a large squid so unknown to science that it did not fit into any existing family swam up looking for lunch.

“When I saw that on the tape, I screamed so loud they could hear me on the bridge, four levels up,” said Widder, whose discovery that day led to her receiving a MacArthur Genius Award.

A colorful cast of other scientists from around the world who sailed aboard the vessel also made momentous discoveries, and many new research devices were created onboard.

“The thing that made Harbor Branch and our expeditions really special was the collaboration between scientists, engineers and sub operators,” said Dan Boggess, who piloted Johnson Sea Link Submersibles for 16 years and worked as an onboard engineer for another six years after that.

“We had a machine shop where we could weld things up and we were always working with the scientists to help them get the samples they were after.”

“Every dive was a big deal,” said Boggess.

“We mounted science packages and special equipment on the top of the submarines, on the sides, the back and anyplace else we could fit it,” said Scott Olson, another former HBOI sub pilot and engineer who showed up for the informal reunion.

Harbor Branch fell on hard times after the deaths of its two founders, Seward Johnson and Edwin Link, and in 2005 it began the much lamented process of divesting its three ocean-going research ships, along with the manned submarines that led to discoveries ranging from potent pharmaceutical substances to vast new coral reefs.

The Atlantic Explorer was sold off in 2006 and now belongs to the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, where it participates in a research consortium known as UNOLS (University National Oceanographic Laboratory System) that coordinates scientific expeditions funded by federal agencies.

Powered by two 1,000 horsepower diesel engines, the ship, which has logged a quarter million miles of research cruising, has a range of 5,000 miles and can be outfitted with an almost unlimited variety of scientific equipment.

It rents out to government-funded scientists for $26,500 a day, all inclusive, and is worth about $3 million, according to Captain Gunter.

When the Atlantic Explorer arrived in Fort Piece it had just finished a 29-day, $740,000 cruise 600 miles offshore in 2-mile deep water on the far side of the Bahamas, carrying scientists and equipment for Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami.

After a busy three-day stay in port, the ship cruised out the Fort Piece Inlet on a three-and-a-half day voyage back to its home base in Bermuda.

“She is very capable, very seaworthy and can handle a large load,” said Gunter who has captained six research vessels in his career.

“You can load her up with a lot of equipment without stability problems and we have great cranes for launching heavy buoys and manned submersibles. She has a lot more capability than the average.”