Benthic chambers and the R/V Savannah

By Debbie Jahnke

Editor’s Note: Rick and Debbie Jahnke were long time fixtures at Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. Rick was a faculty scientist and, for a short time, interim director. Debbie was his research coordinator. They retired in 2008 and now reside in Port Townsend, Wash.

Wandering through the latest Skidaway Campus Notes (Fall 2017), I encountered “R/V Savannah Demonstrates a Broad Geographic Range in 2017,” and there was a photo of an autonomous vehicle being recovered by the R/V Savannah in the Gulf of Mexico. That particular autonomous vehicle appears to be one of a family that started life as a BECI (Benthic Experimental Chamber Instrument), first built at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and then trucked across country in 1987 when the Jahnkes moved to Savannah and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. (Back then, we weren’t “the Jahnkes” yet. That didn’t happen until 1999.)

Two more BECIs of this type were built at Skidaway Institute but Lee Knight (emeritus Assistant Director/Engineer) had them constructed with hexagonal structural horizontals rather than the circular original. Skidaway Institute’s machine shop didn’t have the equipment to make the round bend. One of the BECIs was lost at sea on the Ceara Rise, an underwater feature off the east coast of Brazil in 1994.

When we departed Skidaway for our “left coast” retirement in 2008, Martial Taillefert (Georgia Tech) was kind enough to adopt the old BECIs and various other benthic instruments and all their paraphernalia. It’s a pleasure to see what appears to be a BECI or a close relative in active use. There’s an additional float on her frame now, which must mean there is also more of a scientific payload to buoy.

It is a bonus to note that the BECI is going to sea on the R/V Savannah, as Rick had been closely involved in the design of the vessel and was acting director of Skidaway Institute when Trish Windom christened our brand-new, almost-finished ship in the Bath, Maine shipyard. Rick served briefly as acting director between Herb Windom’s retirement and the arrival of Jim Sanders as new director.

The completed R/V Savannah arrived from the shipyard in Maine just after midnight on September 12, 2001. Rick and I were waiting on the Skidaway Institute dock with Lee Knight when our ship appeared out of the dark downriver, heading for her new home. The World Trade Towers had just fallen, and chaos was in force. The crew hadn’t had radio contact, so we didn’t even know if they were okay. Skidaway Institute had a muted commissioning celebration for our new ship.

Now, Skidaway Institute has gained a new director who originally arrived as a post-doc quite a few years ago, and now has quite a bit of gray in his beard (Congratulations, Clark!). We’ve been retired more than nine years, but the BECI and her benthic companions are still hard at work. We wish the BECIs, the R/V Savannah and all their human collaborators past, present and future, a happy and successful 2018.

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