The Legacy of NOAA Ship Albatross IV
The Albatross IV was designed specifically to conduct fisheries and oceanographic research. The first stern trawler to be built in the United States, the vessel was commissioned in 1963 and departed on its first research cruise five days later from NOAA Fisheries' Woods Hole Laboratory. The Albatross IV was decommissioned in 2008, after 45 years of service.
The Albatross Legacy
Four research vessels have carried the name Albatross since 1882, two of them built specifically for fisheries and oceanographic research and two conversions from other purposes. The legacy began with the construction of the steamer Albatross in 1882, launching the modern era of ocean research and exploration and the birth of the village of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, home port to all four ships, as a center for worldwide marine research.
This 234-foot steamer, also rigged as a brigantine with more than 7,500 square feet of sail, was the first research vessel in the world constructed exclusively for marine research. Albatross made its first scientific cruise in the summer of 1883 between Washington and Woods Hole, investigating the fish and bottom in a wide area of the coastal shelf and Gulf Stream. During its forty years of service Albatross surveyed the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans on numerous cruises, briefly served in two wars, and made its last survey in the Gulf of Maine before being decommissioned at its home port of Woods Hole, Mass.
Albatross II: 1926-1932
Built in 1909 as a two-masted steamer, the 150-foot sea tug and former World War I minesweeper Patuxent was acquired in 1926 from the U.S. Navy and converted to a fishery research vessel. The ship was renamed Albatross II and used for six years before repair and operational costs required the vessel be taken out of service in 1932 and returned to the Navy in 1934. During its six years of service to marine research, Albatross II surveyed the New England fishing grounds and conducted pioneering studies of haddock, mackerel, and plankton.
Albatross III: 1948-1959
The third ship to bear the name Albatross was another conversion, or rather a double conversion, before it became a fisheries research vessel. Originally named the Harvard and built in 1926 as a steam trawler, the vessel fished New England waters until 1939, when it was sold to the U.S. Government for $1.00 to be converted into the fisheries research vessel. With the conversion well underway in 1942, the Coast Guard took over the vessel for use as a patrol boat during World War II, lengthened the ship from 140 to 179 feet, and renamed it the Bellefonte. The ship was returned to civilian use in 1944, completed a second conversion in 1948, and was renamed. Albatross III made 128 cruises during its research career and contributed significantly to knowledge of the fisheries and oceanography of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean.
Albatross IV: 1963 - 2008
The 187-foot Albatross IV, like the first Albatross, was designed specifically to conduct fisheries and oceanographic research. The first stern trawler to be built in the United States, the vessel was commissioned May 9, 1963 and spent much of its career conducting resource surveys assessing the health and population structure of finfish and scallops on the Northeast continental shelf, marine mammal surveys, and studies of plankton and larval fish abundance. The decommissioning of the ship November 20, 2008 at its home port in Woods Hole marked the end of an era for research ships that bear the name Albatross.
Many undergraduate and graduate students, high school teachers, and college professors have sailed aboard the Albatross IV, some of them following paths they least expected. Several teachers participated through NOAA's Teacher at Sea Program, others through informal education connections, but all with a love of science, an appreciation of the beauty and force of nature, and awe at what they could learn from the sea.
The Ship Becomes the Teacher
“During a few short weeks in the summer of 2006, I had the great pleasure to sail with you. You taught me a great deal. I marveled at your non-stop engines, that constant source of energy that led us to also work non-stop. You hummed to me during the midnight shift, in between trips of the trawl net to the bottom of the sea. You provided security as we meet the tail-winds of a tropical storm—and I never felt worried—seasick yes, but not worried. And I simply tucked my blanket tightly under my mattress, and was rolled to a fine deep sleep. You helped me gain some semblance of "sea-legs" as I have never venture so far from terra firma. Yet you strongly suggested crackers and dry cereal when the sea rolled a bit too much for this greenhorn.
“You showed me that a real mix of people can come together, carry out specific tasks, and can accomplish something significant. You shared your back deck with me as we gazed upon the rising sun together and we both have smiled at the warmth and beauty. You showed the importance of fisheries research for the greater good of mankind and this is what you taught me the most. I enjoy eating scallops today knowing that your efforts — your tireless efforts have made a scallop dinner possible.”
Joel Jaroch, Teacher-at-Sea, Philadelphia, PA
“Being on the Albatross IV was a powerful sea experience for me! For two weeks in July 2007, I took part in the North Atlantic scallop assessment survey. My worst fear was getting seasick, but I didn't get sick at all! Sailing across the vast ocean was surreal- could you tell it was my first time out in the middle of the ocean?! The beautiful sunsets, seeing the cruise and container ships sailing within viewing distance, the dolphins jumping around the ship, and even getting to take closeup shots from the bow of a sunfish sailing around a floating, and a dead basking shark. Awesome!
“The crew was so friendly, made you feel welcome from beginning to end, and was willing to answer any questions that I may have asked of them. The food was delicious- better than I eat at home! Cookouts on the stern of the ship were such amazing memories between the yummy food to hanging out (sitting on buckets) with the crew having a great time. The staterooms were comfortable- it was kind of weird watching waves crashing outside the peephole window while taking a shower, though. Last, but not least, the scientific research. I always wanted to be a marine biologist growing up, but switched gears to teach the science in a museum setting. It's so amazing to study ocean life up close and personal than in a classroom. You're in bright yellow waders and boots for 12 hours rummaging through loads of sand dollars, quahogs, and rocks to find the treasure- scallops! We also conducted counts on skates, sea stars, monkfish, and crabs- true predators of the scallops! It was messy and tiring, but lots of fun and I learned so much! I wouldn't trade this experience for anything! Thank you for this opportunity!”
Susie Hill, Education Specialist for Nauticus, Norfolk, VA
Officers and Crew
Through the years hundreds of men and women have sailed aboard Albatross IV as officers and crew. Each with specific duties, they are part of NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO) which is composed of both civilians, many with merchant marine documentation, and the 299 commissioned officers of the NOAA Corps, one of the nation's seven uniformed services.
NMAO operates NOAA's 19 ships and 12 aircraft around the country in support of the agency's environmental and scientific missions, including the vessels Albatross IV and Delaware II homeported in Woods Hole and several local aircraft used for aerial surveys of marine mammals.
Albatross IV typically carried 14-16 officers and crew and up to 15 scientists. All members of the crew, upon the ship's decommissioning, have taken other NMAO assignments around the country. Several will remain in the Northeast to serve aboard the 155-foot Delaware II and the 209-foot Henry B. Bigelow, which is replacing the Albatross IV.
The NOAA Corps
The NOAA Commissioned Corps traces its roots back to the former US Coast and Geodetic Survey, the oldest scientific agency in the US Government, which dates back to 1807 and President Thomas Jefferson. The NOAA Corps today provides professionals trained in engineering, earth sciences, oceanography, meteorology, fisheries science, and other related disciplines. Officers operate ships, fly aircraft, manage research projects, conduct diving operations, and serve in staff positions throughout NOAA. Duties range from conducting fisheries and hydrographic surveys, maintaining buoys, flying surveys into hurricanes, and launching weather balloons.
Women scientists, technicians, and ships’ crew routinely sail aboard NOAA vessels and other oceanographic research ships around the world today, but it was not so long ago that having women at sea was far from ordinary.
Albatross III and Albatross IV led the way for the Woods Hole Laboratory of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC). In 1948, U.S. Bureau of Fisheries employee Rachel Carson was asked to write an article about the work going on at the Woods Hole Laboratory, then part of the Bureau of Fisheries (today it is part of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service). Arrangements were made for Carson and another woman to sail aboard Albatross III, but for various reasons it did not happen, apparently much to the relief of the chief scientist of that cruise, who later noted that their presence would have been “resented.”
Just one year later, in 1949, Carson and Marie Rodell, her literary agent, did make a cruise aboard Albatross III, breaking the barrier for women to go to sea. Carson made several more cruises aboard fisheries vessels as editor of publications for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, successor to the Bureau of Fisheries. She retired in 1952 to write full-time, gaining fame as author of the bestsellers “The Sea Around Us” published in 1951, “The Edge of the Sea” in 1955, and “Silent Spring” in 1962.
It took fifteen more years for female employees of the Woods Hole Laboratory to have the opportunity to go to sea. Ruth Stoddard became the first in 1964, accompanied by Antioch College student Lisbeth Francis on a three-week cruise to Georges Bank aboard Albatross IV. Stoddard started work at the lab as a clerk in the late 1950s, became a biology lab technician, and sailed on many cruises aboard Albatross IV before she retired, including a joint research cruise in 1967 with a Russian fisheries vessel named Albatros which had two female scientists aboard. In 1968 Judy Penttila, Brenda Byrd, and Jean St. Onge Burns made a cruise together on Albatross IV, meeting the requirement that a three-person female cabin had to be full.
More opportunities for females at sea came in 1975 as Linda Despres of the Woods Hole Laboratory became the first female chief scientist during a bottom trawl survey on Albatross IV, which was also the first cruise on which women in the science party outnumbered the men. In 1980 Kathy Bowden and Helen Gordon became the first female crew members, Bowden sailing as a member of the steward’s department and Gordon as a survey technician.
Today women at sea are common; 45 female scientists and technicians have each sailed more than 100 days on the Albatross IV through the years, and women have worked in the galley, engine room, as deckhands and as ship officers.
The first female chief scientist on Albatross IV was also the last chief scientist before the vessel was retired in November 2008. Fishery Biologist Linda Despres spent more days at sea aboard Albatross IV than any other scientist, 972 days over 34 years. As she notes: “We had a slow start, but we're making a spectacular finish!”
In a ceremony steeped in tradition, from lowering of the flags and ringing of the ship's bell for a final time to presentation of the ship's flags to crew members, the Albatross IV was officially decommissioned November 20, almost 46 years to the day the 187-foot ship arrived in Woods Hole for the first time.
Despite the frigid and windy weather, a crowd of some 200 gathered on the Woods Hole Laboratory dock to pay tribute to the many accomplishments of the vessel and to mark its retirement from the NOAA fleet after 45 years of service. Music for the formal decommissioning ceremony was provided by the U.S. Navy Band Northeast, with colors presented by the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Southeastern New England.
Principal speakers included Acting Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Acting NOAA Administrator William J. Brennan, who started his NOAA career aboard the vessel as a deck hand and survey technician in the late 1970s, and RADM Jonathan Bailey, director of the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps and NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, which manages NOAA's fleet of ships and aircraft.
Northeast Fisheries Science Center Director Dr. Nancy Thompson welcomed the crowd to "the house that the Albatross IV built" and noted the special connection of the Albatross line of ships to the Woods Hole Laboratory, home port to four research vessels to bear that name since the first, a sail-rigged steamer, left the Woods Hole dock in 1883 to survey the waters off the northeastern U.S.
She recognized those in the audience who had sailed on the first bottom trawl survey cruise on Albatross IV in 1963, noting that "more than 2,400 scientific staff have sailed on her and thousands of researchers, teachers, fishermen and environmentalists have benefitted from her work." Laughs erupted from the audience when she mentioned the number of days at sea some of the former lab directors and other government officials from Washington in attendance had spent aboard the vessel, ranging from one day for retired Woods Hole Laboratory Director Herbert Graham to 100 days for Acting NOAA Administrator Bill Brennan.
"Marine fishery research is possible because we send scientists and their instruments to sea. It can be said that the Albatross IV was the first of our vessels to be an instrument herself," Thompson told the crowd. "This was new, but is now a standard on its own, expected in all modern fishery research vessels. Because of her long life, many of us here at the Center have a special relationship with the Albatross IV. We have grown up with her, spent entire careers on her, found remarkable things, and learned more than has ever been known before."
During the ceremony the ship's pennant was presented by tradition to the last captain, Stephen Wagner, and the American flag to the longest serving crew member, 1st assistant engineer Charles "Chuck" Hersey, who sailed aboard Albatross IV for 24 years. Hersey's father Robert also sailed aboard the vessel as a scientist, logging 457 days at sea.
The event was also an opportunity for current and former crew members, scientists and staff who sailed aboard her, government officials and many others who had some connection to the vessel to share memories and see old friends, a number of whom traveled great distances for the occasion.
A reception followed in the Meigs Room at the nearby Marine Biological Laboratory, where a 50-minute commemorative video of Albatross IV through the years, created by Dave Chevrier of Data Management Systems, was played for the first time. Guest of honor at the reception was Dr. Herbert Graham, 102, who welcomed the new ship to Woods Hole in November 1962 as director of the Woods Hole Laboratory. Tours of the ship were offered in the afternoon, and dozens took advantage of the opportunity, viewing photographs displayed in labs and lounges and recalling their experiences at sea.
Albatross IV departed Woods Hole for its final voyage just before sunset December 5, headed to Norfolk, Va to await further disposition at NOAA's Marine Operations Center-Atlantic. As the ship pulled away from the dock and gave a final blast of its horn, the crowd broke into applause, car horns wailed, a cannon boomed from the WHOI pier, and a salute from the Delaware II bid the ship farewell.