URI student finds his calling during research cruise to map underwater mountains

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KINGSTON, R.I. – July 29, 2013 – University of Rhode Island senior Chris Pfrommer has always had an interest in underwater archaeology and robotics, and he enjoys the mystery of not knowing what lies beneath the ocean’s surface. But it wasn’t until he spent three weeks aboard the Okeanos Explorer, a research ship operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that he found his calling.

An ocean engineering major from Killingworth, Conn., Pfrommer learned on Facebook about an internship aboard the 224-foot ship, and he was thrilled to be selected for the expedition that ran from June 9 to 29.

“The purpose of the trip was to create high resolution maps of the New England seamounts, part of an underwater chain of extinct volcanoes that originates at the edge of Georges Bank in the Atlantic Ocean off Massachusetts and extends 1,000 kilometers southeast to the Bermuda Rise,” Pfrommer said. “It was all about improving our understanding of the biology and geology of the seamount chain.”

Using a multi-beam sonar system attached to the ship’s hull, the vessel traveled back and forth across transect lines to map the seafloor as part of a national effort to establish the full extent of the U.S. continental shelf.

“I found it extremely fascinating – unlike anything else – that there were these giant seamounts right below us that you couldn’t actually see above the water, but with the multi-beam sonar I could see it all right there on my computer monitor,” said Pfrommer. “I absolutely loved the experience.”

The URI student worked eight-hour shifts every day monitoring the sonar data and collecting a wide variety of environmental measurements. During off hours he enjoyed the ship’s fully equipped gym and excellent food, and he took plenty of time to enjoy the sunsets and look for marine life.

“It was pretty neat to stick your head over the rail and watch the waves and look for life out there. We saw three or four sperm whales and a pod of dolphins swimming in the wake of the ship,” said Pfrommer, who competed on the URI track and field team during his freshman and sophomore years and recently earned his scuba certification. “I had never seen dolphins up close before, so that was pretty cool. And the water was incredibly blue; I’ve never seen such blue water before.”

Most of all, Pfrommer enjoyed learning about life at sea.

“It’s a totally different lifestyle living aboard ship, and afterwards I realized that I really liked that life,” he said. “You don’t realize how big the ocean is until you’ve traveled for five days and see that you’ve only crossed a tiny part of it.

“The whole experience opened doors for me. I learned some technologies that I know plenty of companies have all sorts of uses for, and I learned that mapping water bodies is something that I might want to do for a career,” he added. “I’d like to see where that road takes me.”

Pictured above

URI senior Chris Pfrommer (right) poses with the science team aboard the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer. (Photo courtesy of Chris Pfrommer.)