You Do What?

By Forest Balderson January 1, 2011

Dr. Gary Kirkpatrick studies “pond scum”—his affectionate term for microalgae and other microscopic plant-like organisms that live in the ocean and estuaries of the Gulf of Mexico. Manager of Mote’s Phytoplankton Ecology Program and a 20-year veteran scientist for Mote Marine, Kirkpatrick is the inventor and operator of the BreveBuster (also known as the optical phytoplankton discriminator), an instrument that hitches rides with robotic gliders Waldo and Nemo on the search for red tide. Equipped with a GPS and a meridian satellite telephone, these robotic gliders report their location and findings to Kirkpatrick every three hours—and they dutifully await his new instructions. His robots’ tours of duty can be perilous. Waldo has endured one shark bite to the rudder, and a remora (suckerfish) once held the robot at the bottom of the Gulf for 10 days. In the last year, Kirkpatrick has launched his robots, along with 12 others from around the coast, on a new mission—searching for oil and chemical dispersants in the water after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Still, his passion lies with pond scum. “Red tide is more my interest,” he says.

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