By land or by sea: Duke's satellite campus in Beaufort combines classroom learning and aquatic exploration. Scott Taylor
By land or by sea: Duke's satellite campus in Beaufort combines classroom learning and aquatic exploration. Scott Taylor

Island Paradise — With Homework

The Duke Marine Lab exudes an intensity in its teaching and research, even as it shows a more modest profile than Duke's self-consciously splendid main campus.
January 31, 2009
Pirates are pervasive in Beaufort, North Carolina, their evil essence  committed to wax mannequins and  cardboard cutouts at the North Carolina Maritime Museum. There are cannonballs and other artifacts from Blackbeard's presumed flagship, Queen Anne's Revenge, recovered at Beaufort Inlet. There are squeezable puff bottles that produce odors familiar to pirates, such as the sulfur smell of gunpowder. And there are placards with fragments of pirate lingo, including "Shiver Me Timbers!"—a term, according to the glossary on display, meaning "Goodness!"
Right across the street from the museum, visitors can catch a harbor tour on the Water Bug, a captain's launch retired from the U.S. Navy. Today "Captain Bob," with his seafarer's sunglasses, balding head, and graying beard, has on deck a tourist family and an apparently unattached dachshund. Captain Bob explains that pirate ships (and some German U-boats) plied these waters, that Beaufort is the twelfth-oldest town in America, that more than 100 local houses are on the National Register of Historic Places, that wild horses roam nearby Carrot Island and Shackleford Banks, and that—somewhat dubiously—a Beaufort native invented crocs, those plastic boat shoes that have morphed into trendy fashion accessories.

Then, in sun-dappled waters so calm that even the dachshund is undaunted by the modest rocking, Captain Bob powers the boat on a path alongside, as he puts it, "the world-famous Duke Marine Lab."

Captain Bob returns his passengers to Front Street, where they're bound to see a sign pointing out that the area long has been valued by marine scientists for its research potential. U.S. Army surgeons at nearby Fort Macon published articles about marine life in the 1870s. At the end of the nineteenth century, the federal government chose Beaufort as the site for a fisheries laboratory, the nation's second after Woods Hole in Massachusetts. Rachel Carson, the author of The Edge of the Sea as well as one of the literary linchpins of the environmental movement, Silent Spring, conducted research in Beaufort in her later years. The estuarine sanctuary across from the Beaufort waterfront is named in her memory. And Duke founded its marine laboratory on Pivers Island, just over the bridge from Beaufort, in 1938.

Today the Marine Lab exudes an intensity in its teaching and research, even as it shows a more modest profile than Duke's self-consciously splendid main campus. The research areas have wryly worded signs like "Beware of Attack Crab." In the parking lots, the prevailing bumper sticker reads, "No wetlands, no seafood." In the dining hall, students consume baked cod or fried shrimp—along with breakfast grits—beneath banners from landlocked places that, over the decades, have sent their students to study here: Allegheny, Albion, Amherst, Oberlin, Iowa State. This past fall the Marine Lab fed—intellectually and otherwise—twenty-three undergraduates, the same number in the graduate Coastal Environmental Management program, and a slightly larger number of Ph.D. students.

Charting a course: Independent researcher Sara Bell collects marsh samples

Charting a course: Independent researcher Sara Bell collects marsh samples. Scott Taylor

On a fall weekday evening in the library, students, in their typical ways, are scratching at their reading with highlighter pens or running their eyes over laptop screens. The books around them have marine-life-minded titles: The Spider Crabs of America; Medusae of the World; Marine Bio-Acoustics; Pollution Impacts on Marine Biotic Communities; Sea Microbes; Clays, Muds, and Shales.

Just beyond the library, the residential quad is formed of dorms built in the shingled cottage style; bathrooms post stern warnings: "Do not put sand in sink or showers." Outside, amid the skateboarders and Frisbee flingers, a couple of students are operating on a bike's flat tire. A half-dozen are sprawled on benches and drifting between studying and socializing. One woman is engaging nonchalantly with a soccer ball and more adamantly with a cell phone. An island paradise, seemingly—but with homework.

On Duke's main campus, there's no set mealtime, and certainly no set meal place: Freedom of choice is the imperative, and eat-and-run is the norm. A staple of the Marine Lab routine, on the other hand, is a common dining experience.

Over one meal that suits his vegetarian sensibilities, Scott Spillias, a senior, sits across from Boon Shan Quek, a junior from Singapore. (The chef, Sylvester "Sly" Murray, marking more than three Marine Lab decades, drops by to muse about preparing a special meal for a birthday-celebrating student and delivering a pot of chicken soup to an ill student.) Like their undergraduate Marine Lab peers, they are working on independent-study projects.

Quek is looking at the level of PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) in the runoff ponds built alongside shopping-center parking lots and residential areas. PAHs, which come from gasoline, paving asphalt, and parking-lot sealants, are carcinogenic and can accumulate in aquatic animals, notably snails. "Students here have fewer commitments to their extracurricular activities and other non-academic responsibilities, so they have more time to focus on academics, and in particular, research," she says. She's quick to add that there are plenty of social activities, official and unofficial.

Spillias says that the Durham and Beaufort campuses invariably invite different social dynamics. Marine Lab living means "talking to everyone you live with," he says. The small numbers discourage the forming of the usual cliques. In Durham, he says, "I have many friends—and I've experienced this myself—who live on a hall on the main campus and won't talk to anyone on their hall, because they didn't know them before and they aren't part of any of their social circles." The downside of life at Beaufort, of course, is that students can feel removed from those same social circles.

Last year Spillias studied at the Turks and Caicos Islands in the British West Indies. "It was a place where the economy of the country is completely reliant on its natural resources—tourism is number one, fishing is number two," he says. But that doesn't mean that the locals are attuned to the stresses on the marine environment or that they understand how to manage it. He says he came to realize "how over-exploited and under-researched the marine world is," an insight that led him to contemplate a career in marine ecology. For his independent study, Spillias is trying to figure out whether man-made marshes are suitable settlement grounds for the commercially important blue crab.

One of the professors Spillias is working with is zoologist Richard Forward, who teaches marine animal physiology and who came to Duke in 1971. His list of publications goes on for some twenty pages, including articles in journals in oceanography, comparative physiology, and marine biology. In one of his typical class lectures, Forward—wearing the Marine Lab quasi-uniform of shorts, sneakers, and a print shirt—is explaining how crabs, shrimp, and other crustaceans use waves, the sun, the moon, landmarks, and their own magnetic compasses to navigate their environments. Some animals can orient themselves with just "a little patch of blue sky," he says; others, which day by day have to master anew even familiar territory, are "basically stupid."

"I probably walk up to his office for a chat about something at least every other day," Spillias says. "This is true of the Marine Lab professors in general, who are all very friendly and willing to go out of their way for students. One thing that certainly helps is the small class size, where you get to know your professors well, and the fact that you know everyone in your class socially, so you are not ever shy about speaking up in class."

Kirby-Smith, with student, eyes aquatic life.

Kirby-Smith, with student, eyes aquatic life. Brownie Harris

Forward mentions that in recent years, the Marine Lab has added a policy orientation to its research orientation. That's obvious in a "Green by Design" course led by zoology professor Daniel Rittschof. The impetus behind the course, says Rittschof, "is the idea that any educated person should have at least minimal understanding of environments and stewardship issues." His eclectic research interests include antifoulants; he has several patents for the substances, which keep sea creatures from attaching to ship hulls and are environmentally benign.

Rittschof is advising Boon Shan Quek on her runoff-ponds study. "Boon's Singapore home is one where all the estuaries are now fresh-water reservoirs and many are essentially very large parking-lot runoff ponds," he says. "Knowing the toxicology of the ponds is of interest to both of us."

At the Marine Lab, Rittschof is well-known for leading students on two-and-a-half-hour nighttime walks, during which they wade into a shallow estuary looking for crabs, fish, and snails. He guarantees between twenty-five and thirty-five things they can hold in their hands and at least a million individuals to look at. "The trips are multipurpose," he says. "I learn how each student deals with stress, how curious they are, how afraid they are, their sense of humor—and I just generally get to know them as people. After twenty-six years, those trips are still fun for me." Most students, he adds, aren't notably in touch with nature. "For example, last semester in my freshman seminar, eighteen out of eighteen students—sixteen of whom live where robins live—could not identify a robin."

It's late September, and the students are outlining their end-of-term class projects. One plans to perform a cost-benefit analysis of offshore drilling along the North Carolina coast. Another envisions proposing an organic garden that would help feed the Marine Lab population. Spillias, who is in the class, wants to explore low-impact transportation between Duke's main campus and the Marine Lab.

"Green by Design" is taught, appropriately, in the Marine Lab's Repass Ocean Conservation Center. Dedicated in the fall of 2006, it's the first building constructed at the Marine Lab in thirty years and its first "green building." The center uses geothermal pumps for heating and cooling, solar panels for hot water, and photovoltaic rooftop panels to convert sunlight into electricity. It's built of recycled wood and local materials, such as yellow Southern pine and Atlantic white cedar. And it's outfitted with other eco-features, including natural daylight in all spaces, fresh-air ventilation, deep overhangs to provide shade, a landscape of native grasses, permeable sidewalks, and a zinc roof designed to last 100 years.

Converging for communal dining under banners of colleges that have had a Marine Lab presence

Converging for communal dining under banners of colleges that have had a Marine Lab presence. Brownie Harris

In the more conventional architectural space of one of the Marine Lab's teaching labs, William Kirby-Smith Ph.D. '70, a marine ecologist, is getting his students ready for a field trip. He loads them into a small skiff, which he pilots out to Shackleford Banks. Shackleford is a barrier island: It erodes on its ocean side, and it accretes on its inland side. "Every time I go out, I get totally wet and totally dirty," Kirby-Smith says.

He and the students wade into the shallow water and collect starfish, snails, fiddle crabs, hermit crabs, and blue crabs, all of which they'll bring back to the lab. The term "crabby person" has marine-life resonance, he says, since "crabs tend to be aggressive predators." He adds that "students will figure that out," perhaps by receiving an unexpected but memorable pinch. This is, he says, the "post-Flipper generation" of students, for whom environmental stewardship has become a personal and social imperative.

Kirby-Smith also notes a gender skewing. Most of those students are women, a reversal from a decade or so ago. He jokes that he's become attuned to a human behavior pattern: His male students like to plunk the animals into a tank and watch them fight each other; his female students hope the animals will get along swimmingly.

Using a catamaran and the lab's fifty-foot research vessel, the Susan Hudson, two other professors—Larry Crowder, Stephen Toth Professor of marine biology, and research scientist David Johnston—set sail with students in a "Marine Megafauna" course. Based in Durham, the course centers on large sea life—giant squid, bony fish, sharks, sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals. During the students' Marine Lab weekend, though, the course makes a fleeting shift of focus from large sea life to large land life: The first stop is Shackleford, to search out those elusive wild horses.

Crowder is a proselytizer for the oceans as well as a researcher. He has written about the damaging effects of pollution and overfishing. The oceans' problems, he observes, are symptoms of a management approach that no longer works: We manage one resource at a time, separately focusing on fishing or offshore oil drilling, without considering the effects of one activity on another. And we tend to treat one part of the system—coral reefs, kelp forests—rather than the whole.

Crowder points out that Shackleford is one of only a handful of national parks in a seashore area. He also tells the students that Princeton University's Daniel Rubenstein, who earned his Ph.D. from Duke in 1977, was the key biologist in figuring out the optimum size for maintaining the viability of Shackleford's herd of horses. The students and their professors manage some horse sightings. They also manage to get themselves rain-drenched and, in some cases, to connect in unfortunate ways with the prickly plants that line the trails.

With all of that, it's a welcome retreat to the boat to observe an onboard dredging operation. The students sift through, and pass around, the scooped-up sea creatures: urchins, tiny squid, gag groupers, blue fish, Atlantic spade fish, hermit crabs, spider crabs, brittle stars.

Apart from the equine attractions of Shackleford, the Beaufort Inlet reliably produces dolphin delights; the area is a rich feeding ground for the animals. Johnston says their graceful behavior and "hydro-dynamically designed" faces—that is, their apparent smiles—make dolphins irresistible to humans. He originally came to the Marine Lab as a Ph.D. student to study with Andrew Read, Rachel Carson Associate Professor of marine conservation biology, who has long explored the human impact on marine mammals and sea turtles. He also worked with Richard Barber, now the Harvey Smith Professor Emeritus of biological oceanography, who has led expeditions to the Equatorial Pacific, the Arabian Sea, and the Southern Ocean around Antarctica to study the ties between climate and oceanic processes. "Students come here and, on any given day, can sit down for lunch with the people who have changed how we see the ocean," Johnston says. "It's pretty cool."

Bottlenose dolphins earn an entry in a field guide to dolphin- and whale-watching; Johnston was the co-author. The book describes the bottlenose as "a cosmopolitan species" distributed globally in temperate and tropical waters, which spend 95 percent of their time underwater; it also calls them "extremely social" and "active and agile at the surface." Today's dolphins are actively bowing on the water's surface, even as Johnston, a committed surfer, is contemplating the choppy seas longingly.

On past trips, Johnston has run across students who had never before been on a boat or seen a marine mammal. "It's amazing to be able to incorporate field techniques into your teaching," he says. "The balance of nature is misunderstood. Nature is dynamic; it is ever-evolving. There's so much variability in the ocean environment that we can ask a question once, get an answer, ask the same question a second time, and get a different answer."

Dockside two afternoons a week, English professor Tom Ferraro is exploring what literature has to say about the ocean environment—and about humans caught up in the ocean environment. Ferraro, who happens to be an avid swimmer, is visiting from the Durham campus this fall. His course, taught in the Marine Lab's boathouse lounge, is called "Under Ocean's Spell." It immerses students in works ranging from Peter Hoeg's Arctic Ocean mystery Smilla's Sense of Snow to Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny. As he tells students in his course description, "you're likely to be surprised out of your gourd (er, shell)" by the many literary associations with the sea, and "at the Marine Lab certain special lessons involve not only science and policy but English—and especially the intersections between."

This afternoon, Ferraro's students are arriving right from a Marine Lab ice-cream social, and he worries aloud that they're "ready to crash from the sugar intake." Today's subject is Herman Melville's story of the contest for authority on the high seas, Billy Budd.

No backpacks needed: Students unwind on porch of environmentally friendly Repass Ocean Conservation Center

No backpacks needed: Students unwind on porch of environmentally friendly Repass Ocean Conservation Center. Scott Taylor

Ferraro, famous for roiling conversational currents, is confronted with some seminar-room hesitancy. He later ascribes that, in part, to the students' tendency to think like evidence-oriented scientists. He's endeavoring to liberate their imaginations. Ferraro puts them in a role-playing mode to better understand the characters in the shipboard drama, particularly the characters' murky motivations. And he fires questions at them relentlessly: "Who is guilty of what?" "What happens to the innocent on a ship?" "What gets Billy killed?" "Is Billy the biggest idiot who ever existed on the face of the Earth?"

Ferraro was recruited for his Marine Lab semester by Cindy Lee Van Dover, who became director of the Marine Lab two years ago. In the 1970s she was a laboratory assistant here, working for Kirby-Smith, the marine ecologist. One summer, to make ends meet, she lived in a tent across the inlet on Carrot Island with her dog, Matthew, and canoed to work.

On a Saturday evening, a group of students have gathered to watch videos shot and narrated by Van Dover. The videos show the work of the Alvin, a three-person submarine that can descend three miles below the sea's surface. Her audience watches scenes of an inky blue netherworld with six-foot-tall red tube worms, giant clams, and massive beds of anemones.

Her first dive, in 1985, took her down to a spot in the Galapagos Rift where two tectonic plates spread apart, producing underwater hot springs known as hydrothermal vents. She calls those vents "oases of life on the ocean floor." They support odd animals like the giant tube worm, which lacks a mouth or digestive system but, in Van Dover's words, is "exquisite in form and function, adapted to the extreme conditions in which the animal lives." By the end of the dive, she told The New York Times a few years ago, "my head hurt because I'd been straining so hard to see everything."

She was a graduate student at the time, finishing off doctoral work at Woods Hole, which operates the Alvin for the National Science Foundation. She set about writing the first maintenance manual for the submersible. Watching veteran pilots taking apart every bit of hardware, she came to see "how it was built from the inside out." Piloting, she concluded, would engage her with all the tools of underwater exploration and also would take her from one deep-sea hot spring, with its particular set of weird life forms, to the next. She has since led forty-eight expeditions on the Alvin as the pilot in command; she's participated in more than 100 dives, documenting the terrain and creatures of an environment that is at once unforgiving and teeming with life.

Marine Lab director Van Dover made her mark as an underwater explorer

Marine Lab director Van Dover made her mark as an underwater explorer Brownie Harris

Visitors to her office are greeted by a metal sculpture of a scaly-footed gastropod, a kind of snail, discovered on her expedition to the Indian Ocean's hydrothermal vents—the first U.S. exploration of vents in the Indian Ocean. On one wall there's also a poster from the movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea right next to a portrait of the Alvin.

Van Dover's book Deep-Ocean Journeys: Discovering New Life at the Bottom of the Sea delves into the theme of deep-sea science as a frontier science; the seafloor is the planet's largest and least known wilderness. "In my mind, the deep sea encompasses the depths of the open ocean beyond where daylight penetrates—beyond where the sun at noon becomes twilight, beyond darkness, into utter black," she writes. Her voice in another book, The Octopus's Garden, is even more clearly that of the curiosity-driven scientist-poet: "As a scientist, I am robed with degrees and academic pedigree. I write reams of dry prose with appropriately technical language and what my colleagues consider scientific consequence. But at heart, I confess, I am an amateur naturalist, quick to delight in the unusual nature of a worm, the oddities of a shrimp, the peculiarities of a rock."

Van Dover grew up just beyond the New Jersey shore. Family trips to the beach piqued her curiosity about the small animals in the tide pools. She says that while her friends liked the standard four-legged creatures—dogs and cats—she was intrigued by horseshoe crabs. "They had ten eyes and ate with their knees. I loved that," she told the Times.

Just outside Van Dover's office, teaching assistant Matt Bower, who's in his first year in the Coastal Environmental Management program, herds the visiting megafauna students into a van. They're headed to the North Carolina Aquarium in nearby Pine Knolls Shore. CEM students spend their first year in Durham, taking courses in resource economics and other subjects that aren't taught at the Marine Lab, and their second year in Beaufort.

Before diving into graduate work at Duke, Bower was a teaching assistant for a course in coastal-field ecology, working on a project with diamondback terrapins. "That started the itch," he says. He later spent three months on the Galapagos Islands, where he was a volunteer coordinator for a nonprofit that was trying to reforest an area with native plant species.

Into the wild: on a student field trip, photographing undomesticated Shackleford Banks horses.

Into the wild: on a student field trip, photographing undomesticated Shackleford Banks horses. Sott Taylor

Bower and his students arrive at the aquarium for a behind-the-scenes tour with "Curt," whose nametag identifies him as special-activities director and whose skull-and-crossbones belt identifies him as a pirate fan. In front of an aggregation of alligators, Curt counsels the students about a possible alligator encounter. Although gators can run thirty-five miles per hour for a short distance, they can't "turn on a dime," he says, and so might be stymied if you pursue a zig-zag path. And while their sharp teeth can bite with a force of 2,000 pounds per square inch, the muscles that open their mouths are relatively weak, so you can always try holding their jaws shut, he adds.

Curt directs his visitors to the top of the aquarium's big tank, observing that it would be a bad thing to fall in. The tank is filled with scary sand sharks and specimens with such evocative names as blue-striped grunt, crevalle jack, cotton wick, gag, and vermillion snapper.

At the end of the tour, some of the students linger by a smaller tank. Its tenants include pigfish, lookdown, and a bonnethead shark. The fish swim around an anchor and other shipwreck detritus, rendered in fiberglass and meant to evoke the remains of Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge, that enduring emblem of pirate activity.

Bower drives the students back to Beaufort, past local landmarks like Beach Mart and Bert's Surf Shop. While he grew up in landlocked Chicago, he says he was drawn at an early age to the seemingly endless expanse of Lake Michigan. Later, he adds, "I love to be near the water. This sounds like a surfer mentality, but no one is ever stressed or angry at the beach. There is something about the sound of waves, sunrises, sunsets, and the endless blue horizon that has a calming effect on people."