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Despite COVID-19 delays, UGA Skidaway Institute scientist heading home from the Arctic

After four months at sea, including two and a half months on board a German ice breaker locked in the Arctic ice cap, University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientist Chris Marsay is on his way home. His return trip comes six weeks later than planned due to travel restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 crisis.

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Chris Marsay, all wrapped up for working out on the ice during windy conditions.

Marsay has been on board the research vessel Polarstern as part of a major international research project to study climate change in the Arctic named Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, or “MOSAiC.” Last fall the Polarstern sailed into the Arctic Ocean until it became locked in the ice. The plan was for the ship to drift with the ice for a year all the while serving as a headquarters for scientists to study Arctic climate change. Scientists were scheduled in shifts or “legs” to work for two to three months at a time. However, unable to exchange the science teams by either air or with another ice breaker, MOSAiC organizers decided to pull the Polarstern out of the ice pack and leave the research station for an estimated three weeks while the changeover takes place.

“My time working at the MOSAiC ice floe has come to an end, and I am currently traveling south on the Polarstern towards Svalbard where the exchange between personnel from legs three and four of the project will take place,” Marsay said. “Due to the travel restrictions in place because of COVID-19, it was not possible to carry out the exchange at the ice floe itself as originally planned.”

The replacement team is already at Svalbard aboard two other German vessels. They completed a two-week quarantine and multiple coronavirus tests before departure. The teams will exchange ship-to-ship in a fiord since Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, is closed to outside visitors because of COVID-19.

According to Marsay, his time at the MOSAiC ice floe has been eventful. “The ice was much more dynamic than it had been during the first months of the MOSAiC project,” he said. “Cracks and leads frequently opened up in the area around the ship, and the ice movement also formed ridges of ice blocks several feet high.”

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A crack that opened up next to the ship in mid-March meant that some equipment had to be hurriedly moved to safety.

All of these events restricted access to some research sites, but the work continued, providing new sampling opportunities for the researchers.

This was not Marsay’s first trip to the Arctic. A 2015 research cruise took him to the North Pole, but this trip was a new experience. “It’s been unique to witness the transition from winter to spring in the central Arctic Ocean,” he said. “During our time at the floe we experienced a minimum temperature of negative 40 degrees Celsius, not accounting for wind chill, and a maximum of zero degrees Celsius. The sun did not rise until two weeks after we arrived at the floe, and has not set since late March.”

Marsay also experienced windy days with storm-force winds and whiteout conditions due to blowing snow, and days with beautiful clear skies when the sun reflecting off the snow was dazzling, he said.

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As calm conditions gradually return after a couple of days of windy conditions, Polarstern is visible through some blowing snow at ground level.

During his participation in MOSAiC, Marsay collected snow, ice cores, sea water and aerosol samples as part of our project studying the atmospheric deposition of trace elements in the central Arctic.

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Each Monday, Marsay was part of a team that collected multiple ice cores at a site far enough away from the ship that a Ski-Doo and sledges were needed.

He also learned some new skills, including driving a Ski-Doo, and on several occasions he carried a rifle and served as a polar bear guard for colleagues.

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The researches had one polar bear visit (that they know of) during leg 3. These footprints within a couple of hundred yards of Polarstern.

“We on board will have been at sea for over four months by the time we get to Germany,” Marsay said. “When we started, the COVID 19 virus was not widespread outside of China.

“We have all been following the news from back home, and although we’re looking forward to getting home, everyone is expecting some initial difficulties getting used to the way that public life has changed while we’ve been away.”

Become part of Skidaway Institute’s mission!

Dear Friends of Skidaway Institute,

In these days of coronavirus restrictions and an economic downturn, the UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography needs your support more than ever. You have probably heard that the governor has asked for 14% budget cuts from all state agencies for the fiscal year beginning July 1, and we are preparing for some serious belt tightening. I ask you to help us by making or increasing your membership donation to our non-profit fundraising arm, the Associates of Skidaway Institute.

Your financial support is very important in helping us to continue to achieve our research and education mission in service to the state of Georgia and the nation. Your membership donation will support a variety of expenses not covered by state funds, particularly associated with providing research opportunities for undergraduates, supporting graduate students and outfitting the labs of newly hired scientists. With the Institute faculty gaining a formal educational mission in our 2013 merger with UGA, on-going student support has become critical for us, as we seek to train the next-generation of scientists while continuing our research mission. I cannot overstate the value of your financial support and the flexibility that it gives us to provide support for students to train under Skidaway scientists.

Current membership provides benefits including our quarterly Skidaway Campus Notes newsletter, invitations to on-campus events like the Evening @ Skidaway seminar series, and in-lab visits with Skidaway faculty. Along with the tangible benefits of an Associates membership, you will know that you are supporting leading-edge research and education addressing some of the most pressing questions in ocean and environmental sciences.

For your convenience, you may begin or renew your membership online with a credit card. Simply click HERE. Or you can mail your donation to:

Associates of Skidaway Institute
10 Ocean Science Circle
Savannah, GA 31411

The Associates of Skidaway Institute is a unit of the University of Georgia Foundation, a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization. All contributions are fully tax deductible.

Thank you in advance for your continuing interest and support.

Clark Alexander
UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography

UGA Skidaway campus reacts to COVID-19 crisis

Like everyone else in the country, the organizations on the UGA Skidaway Marine Science Campus have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In mid-March, UGA Skidaway Institute cut back on all on-campus activities. Most active research was put on hold and faculty and staff were directed to telecommute as possible. Scheduled research and educational cruises on board the R/V Savannah were postponed. A small team of staff members continue to work on campus to maintain facilities and systems. Monthly Evening @ Skidaway public programs are cancelled, at least through the summer.

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“Although we are currently pausing our research and educational efforts, we are eager to restart those programs as soon as it is safe to do so,” Director Clark Alexander said.

UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant shut down operations about the same time. The UGA Aquarium closed, and all educational field trips were cancelled for the remainder of the school year.



“Our biggest priorities in our response has been the health and safety of our staff and the public that we interact with regularly,” Mark Risse, director of Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant said. “For this reason, we made the hard decision to cancel many of our public programs and conferences this spring, as well as our summer marine science camps scheduled in June and July.”

Educators at the UGA Aquarium have transitioned several in-person public programs to virtual platforms. Registration is currently open for a series of engaging online events scheduled for June and July that focus on marine animals and coastal habitats. Learn more at

Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s Shellfish Research Lab is supporting the aquaculture industry by providing technical assistance to shellfish growers and sharing information about COVID-related resources. A handful of extension specialists at the lab continue to keep the oyster hatchery running and are producing oyster seed for shellfish farmers on the coast.

Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary remains open while its headquarters facilities on the UGA Skidaway Marine Science Campus are closed and staff is working from home. Most non-essential operations and research activities have been postponed, including the annual NOAA Ship Nancy Foster expedition, typically hosted in mid-July. The Gray’s Reef Expo on River Street has been tentatively rescheduled for November 21-22. Outreach from Gray’s Reef is focusing on digital and virtual events. Updates and additional news from the sanctuary be found at Gray’s Reef’s social media pages. This includes

Rick and Debbie During Their Time at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography (1987–2008)

by Herbert Windom

Editor’s note: The author, Herb Windom, was the first faculty scientist hired at Skidaway Institute and served as director for several years in the 1990s.

During 1986, the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography initiated a search for a marine organic geochemist. Dave Menzel, our director at the time, had met and talked with Stuart Wakeham, who was a post-doc at Woods Hole, about coming to Savannah, so he had a leg up on other applicants for the job. I chaired the search committee, and we advertised the job reasonably widely, thinking it would be straightforward. Then we received an application from Rick Jahnke, who at the time was an assistant research geochemist at Scripps Institute in La Jolla, Calf. Rick was not on our radar, but our faculty knew of him and held him in high regard. We figured that he was “testing the waters” as a means of leveraging a more secure position at Scripps. However, given his resume and our familiarity with his work, we thought it would be money well-spent just to get him to Skidaway to have a look around. We had no expectations that he would be seriously interested.


Rick Jahnke in 2007

During his visit, he and I had a frank discussion about his intentions. I told him that we were surprised that he would really consider leaving Scripps to come to Skidaway Institute, since he was a major part of the team responsible for the operation and application of bottom landers to seafloor research there. However, he was very open and honest and explained that he felt his contributions to research at Scripps was being overlooked and viewed the position at Skidaway to be a good career move. He said he was not interested in using a job offer as leverage to stay in La Jolla. He said he would seriously consider a move to Skidaway if offered the job.

We made the job offer and were pleasantly surprised that he accepted it, even though Scripps made a counter offer. As Rick explained it, by that time he had lost his emotional attachment to the place. Rick arrived in July 1987 and brought along a bonus in the form of Debbie Craven, his technician. It turned out that Debbie was more than a super technician. From the very start, we could see that Debbie and Rick were not only an efficient and effective research team, but they were committed and supportive of each other in every way and still are. (Rick and Debbie later married.)

They hit the ground running at Skidaway. Rick continued his work in developing devices for in situ seabed sampling and analysis. It was at Skidaway where he made his major contributions to the understanding of geochemical processes at the seafloor. His research on carbon burial in marine sediments provided a major contribution to the understanding of the global carbon budget.

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Rick talks with then-state representative Bob Smith on board the R/V Savannah in October 2005.

At Skidaway, Rick turned more attention to the coastal ocean, focusing on processes such as benthic primary production and nutrient exchange on continental shelves. During 1999 he was appointed chair of the National Science Foundation’s Coastal Oceans Processes (CoOP) Program Scientific Steering Committee. He continued in this position during his tenure at Skidaway. An example of Rick and Debbie’s strong teamwork was their collaboration in CoOP where Debbie assumed the responsibility as editor of the CoOP Newsletter while Rick provided the leadership. It turns out that Debbie is an excellent scientific editor and has had a great deal to do with Rick’s successful communication of his research (I am sure that I would get no argument from Rick on this point).

Perhaps motivated by institutional pride, I point out that Rick solidified the scientific reputation of Skidaway Institute during his time there. His research here was generally collaborative with researchers all over the world as reflected in his publications (dominantly multi-authored). Likewise, he served in various capacities, supporting the activities of many important national and international organizations that have led the way in important areas of marine science. Although Rick’s science and service have a significant multi-organizational flavor, he still had a strong commitment to Skidaway Institute, as did Debbie. Rick was a driving force in the development of collaborative research efforts among the faculty. This is also reflected in his publications, which include coauthored papers with virtually every faculty member at Skidaway during his tenure. I was a coauthor on several of Rick’s publications and, toward the end of his tenure here, he and I collaborated on our first venture into the investigation of significance of groundwater discharge to the coastal ocean. Likewise, Debbie coauthored papers with members of the faculty other than Rick. However, she was happy to stay out of the “spotlight” when it came to authorship, although she often contributed significantly. She was also a wonderful proof reader/editor of institutional publications, and many of us took advantage of this expertise when putting together our own manuscripts.

Rick was a major force in getting Skidaway Insitute more involved in formalized educational activities. While most of the faculty had, historically, attracted graduate students on an ad hoc basis, Rick helped to organize summer courses and student visits to attract them to Skidaway. Early on, a series of “distance learning” courses were developed using satellite transmission. Rick was a major contributor to this approach and curriculum development.

The Rick/Debbie team operated with amazing efficiency in both research and science program management. In my opinion, however, their teamwork in local institutional projects was where this synergy was most effective. When the Institute began to engage more formally in educational activities, it became apparent that we needed adequate housing to accommodate increased numbers of students for longer periods. When the institute was founded in 1968, 680 acres of land on Skidway Island was donated by the Roebling family (of Roebling wire/Brooklyn Bridge fame) to accommodate the Institute. Along with the land, the institute inherited two existing docks, a barge that brought material to the island (The bridge to the island was completed in 1970.), a shop, a show barn (for the Roebling’s’ prized Black Angus bulls) and several small houses/apartments that had been used by workers on the Roebling estate. After some rehabbing, a couple of the old houses could be used for visiting scientists, but not much thought was given to any long-term housing plan. Moreover, graduate students had to find housing off the island. As visitors and students increased in the 1980s, the housing problem needed to be addressed.

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Debbie (right) with Soo Frischer in 2006.

Somehow, Debbie was coerced into taking on the job of improving housing on campus. This, though, would consume considerable time (beyond the normal working day) for the remainder of her time at Skidaway. It started with the barn. The barn, because of its useful open space, provided a staging area for the bottom landers prior to cruises and, consequently, this was where Debbie and Rick spent a fair amount of time. Always recognizing opportunities, she noticed that an apartment connected to the barn could be renovated into a habitable space. As with everything in which she got involved, Debbie totally committed herself to the task. She was still running Rick’s lab, but multi-tasking? No problem.

From then on, Debbie took the lead in acquiring and improving housing at Skidaway. Initially, Debbie oversaw the remodeling of the original houses on campus This included a duplex and a house, previously used as a residence for Roebling’s veterinarian. She created a communal laundry room for campus residents. Debbie spent a lot of volunteer hours there herself, cleaning sheets and towels for visitor housing. The funds for these renovations were obtained through an NSF proposal written by Debbie. Subsequently, two additional NSF proposals (also shepherded by Debbie) resulted in grants to build the “Quadraplex” in 1999 to accommodate more students. A second grant followed in 2006, which provided funds for construction of the “Commons.” Moreover, as a testament of Debbie’s humility and connection to the Skidaway community, all of the housing units are named for members of the staff who worked in the business office, shop and grounds. The one exception is an apartment named for David Menzel who was our director for 23 years.

Debbie volunteered her time to the housing effort while she ran Rick’s lab. She also managed the housing schedule and, I believe, she did a fair amount of cleaning when it was required at the last minute. Rick also shared this deep commitment to serve the Institute beyond just his research, and I’m sure he was helping Debbie clean sheets and other housing-related chores. Rick was always one of the most outspoken members of the faculty. During planning retreats and faculty meetings, his ideas and recommendations were the most constructive and generally carried the day. He was always prepared to argue his opinion, often in direct conflict with the views of the administration (of which he became a part during the latter part of his tenure), but always with the best interests of the institute in mind.

Rick, like Debbie, was also very “hands on” when it came to contributing to the Institute beyond his research. The best example of this was his efforts with regard to the planning and construction of the Institute’s research vessel Savannah. During the late 1990s, the Institute initiated the effort to acquire a vessel designed for coastal oceanographic research. Up until that time, the institute had relied on a converted fishing boat. The R/V Blue Fin was extremely limited in its capacity to accommodate multi-investigator research using modern technology. Its ability to operate for cruises of more than a week, and it stability and safety were all problematic.

The first obstacle was the University System of Georgia, which had never funded the construction of a ship. Rick was associate director during this period and was engaged in the effort to convince the chancellor’s office that they needed to think of this ship as a floating building, more in line with their idea of “a capital project.” I think Rick originated that idea. Rick probably had more shipboard experience than any other member of the faculty did at the time, so he agreed to take on the job of working with the faculty to develop the research vessel’s mission. He then worked with a marine architect to develop a design that fit that mission (including wave tank studies) on which an estimate of costs could be developed in preparation for a proposal for funding. This took an incredible amount time and attention away from his research, but Debbie had his back and his (and Debbie’s) research productivity maintained about three publications a year, not to mention all his other commitments (education, panels, committees, etc.).

Ultimately, we received the funds for construction of the vessel and, again, Rick provided the administrative oversight of the construction and outfitting of the vessel. On May 25, 2001, the R/V Savannah was launched at the Washburn and Doughty shipyard in Booth Bay, Maine (Fig. 1, Debbie and Rick). The Savannah was designed specifically for coastal ocean research, and to this day, it remains as one of the busiest vessels in the UNOLS Fleet.

UGA Skidaway Institute, SECOORA christen new glider

Researchers from the UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography and the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association (SECOORA) welcomed a new glider to their research fleet with a christening ceremony at UGA Skidaway Institute on Tuesday, April 23. The new glider was purchased and is owned by SECOORA, but will be based at UGA Skidaway Institute and operated by the UGA Skidaway Institute glider team headed by Catherine Edwards.

Gliders are torpedo-shaped crafts that can be packed with sensors and sent on underwater missions to collect oceanographic data, and are classified as autonomous underwater vehicles, meaning that they operate untethered on their own. Equipped with satellite phones, the gliders surface periodically to transmit their recorded data and to receive new instructions during missions that can last from weeks to months.

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The glider is named Franklin, after Benjamin Franklin, who ordered the first chart of the Gulf Stream.

The christening ceremony, based on traditional versions for naming and renaming boats, called upon the favor of the gods of the sea, the wind, the tide and the Gulf Stream, and was offered by Edwards, research professional Ben Hefner, SECOORA executive director Debra Hernandez and UGA Skidaway Institute assistant director Marc Mascolo.

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Catherine Edwards raises a glass to Franklin.

Hernandez then capped the ceremony by smashing a bottle of champagne against a metal weight positioned near Franklin’s nose.

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Debra Hernandez completes the ceremony.

Franklin is outfitted with a pumped conductivity-temperature-depth sensor and a three-channel fluorometer that measures chlorophyll, dissolved organic matter and turbidity. It also has a dissolved oxygen sensor and two built-in Vemco acoustic receivers that listen for tagged fish and other animals. The glider is powered by lithium-ion batteries that will allow it to remain on mission for up to five to six weeks at a time without recharging.

Franklin’s first deployment was a SECOORA mission at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. It was joined on the mission by UGA Skidaway Institute’s other glider, named Angus.

Grad student Kun Ma receives Georgia Sea Grant funding

Kun Ma SquareUGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography graduate student Kun Ma has received $25,000 in research funding as part of the Georgia Sea Grant Research Traineeship Program. Ma will use the funds to support her work studying microplastic pollution in Georgia’s marine ecosystem. The project is titled “Determining photodegradation rates and products of textile-derived plastic microfibers in aqueous environments.”

Because the study of microplastics in a marine environment is still very new, there are many basic questions about microplastic distribution, environmental effects, and the sources and sinks of the microplastics. Ma’s focus with this research program is to examine one loss pathway, the degradation of microplastics and microfibers by sunlight in estuarine and marine environments. There are at least 50 trillion microplastic particles in the global ocean and up to one trillion microplastics in Georgia’s waterways alone.

“Knowledge of microplastic degradation pathways is essential to water management of coastal ecosystems, and many types of larger plastics can be degraded by exposure to light,” Ma said. “However, there are no published studies on the rate or degradation products of plastic microfibers in aquatic environments. My study will serve as an initiative to fill this knowledge gap.”

Sea Grant Research Trainees undertake research projects that advance the goals and objectives in Georgia Sea Grant’s strategic plan. Ma’s project will address two goals, maintaining a healthy coastal ecosystem and promoting environmental literacy.

The research will form part of Ma’s thesis research. The results will be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal and will be presented at regional and national conferences. In addition, an educational poster summarizing results of the project will be showcased at public special events reaching diverse audiences, such as Skidaway Marine Science Day, Savannah Earth Day Festival and the World Oceans Day Celebration.

Ma is a Ph.D. student in the UGA Department of Marine Sciences. Her faculty advisor at Skidaway Institute is Jay Brandes. Her professional mentor on the project will be UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant educator Dodie Sanders. The funding is for one year, beginning August 1.

Scouts help beautify campus

The UGA Skidaway Marine Science Campus is a little cleaner, thanks to the Boy Scouts of Skidaway Troop 57. On Saturday, April 27, the scouts collected trash and debris from the Groves Creek section of the campus. The area is very popular with fishermen who drop their hooks from a bluff overlooking Groves Creek.

In addition to small pieces of paper and plastic, the scouts also collected a number of larger pieces, including a hot water heater.

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The project was a “conservation related” service project by the troop. Boy Scouts of America rank advancement requires service hours as the scouts get closer to Eagle Scout, and half of those hours must be conservation related. In addition to the three hours picking up marine debris along Groves Creek, the other scouts from the troop were volunteering at Skidaway Presbyterian Church for the paper shredding event to benefit Safe Shelter.

One of Troop 57’s leaders is UGA Skidaway Institute director of facilities and grounds Chuck Hartman.

Marathon makes donation to Associates of Skidaway Institute

The organizers of the Skidaway Island Marathon, Endurance Race Services, donated $1,000 to the Associates of Skidaway Institute. Held on March 23 this year, the marathon supports a number of area non-profit groups. This is the fifth year the marathon has been held on the Skidaway campus. The donation will be used to support Skidaway Institute’s summer intern program.


UGA Skidaway Institute external affairs manager Michael Sullivan (center) receives the check from title sponsor Optim Healthcare director of marketing Meg Pace and Endurance Race Services’ Dan Pavlin.


UGA Skidaway Institute researcher offers career insight to future scientists

Digital StillCameraUGA Skidaway Institute of Oeanography scientist Marc Frischer was recently featured in a magazine and online article discussing his work and offering guidance to young people interested in science.

This article was produced by Futurum, a magazine and online platform aimed at inspiring young people to follow a career in the sciences, research and technology.

The article can be accessed HERE, and includes a link to an activity sheet for students and teachers. For more information, teaching resources, and course and career guides, see

UGA Aquarium’s Genell Gibson receives award for service

PSO_Gibson_Genell-240x300The administrative assistant and manager of the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium, Genell Gibson, received a Staff Award for Excellence on April 1 at the university’s 28th annual Public Service and Outreach Meeting and Awards Luncheon. Gibson was one of eight faculty and staff members recognized for outstanding service to the state and UGA.

Gibson has been a staple at the aquarium since 1994. She greets incoming visitors, manages fees and admission, maintains the education resource center and directs incoming calls and requests.

Gibson excels at all of her listed duties, but it is her other contributions that set her apart. During her 24 years as a member of Marine Extension and Sea Grant, she has transformed the role beyond its regular office-based duties by serving as a teacher, historian and friend to everyone who visits and works at the facility.

Born and raised in the local community of Pin Point, Gibson picked blue crab for a living as a young adult, a skill she now shares with visitors in the Saturday Explorations at the Aquarium programs.

Gibson also discusses her unique Gullah/Geechee heritage, providing people with a special perspective on the life, work and history of the Georgia coast.

Gibson serves as the face of the UGA Aquarium, where she is often the first person to interact with the more than 20,000 visitors each year. She acts as the intermediary between staff and visitors, exemplifying Marine Extension’s “each one, teach one” principle. Her role is critical to understanding how visitors view the facility and how to improve their experience.

“Genell Gibson is the heart and soul of the Marine Education Center and Aquarium,” said Mark Risse, director of Marine Extension and Sea Grant. “She teaches us daily what is means to be thoughtful, helpful and courteous humans. She reminds us all how fortunate we are to work and live on Georgia’s coast.

“Genell is our historian,” Risse also said. “She is our link to the human history of Skidaway Island during the Roebling era, our link to the long-retired workers who hail from her community of Pin Point, our link to oyster and crabbing culture, our link to the fine folk who love this coastal area and choose to live and work here.”