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Inside the research vessel VIMS uses to spy on whales, shipwrecks and more

The VIMS research vessel, called the R/V Virginia, docked at Nauticus in Norfolk on Thursday, Sept. 21. (Photo by Katherine Hafner)
The VIMS research vessel, called the R/V Virginia, docked at Nauticus in Norfolk on Thursday, Sept. 21. (Photo by Katherine Hafner)

Round the corner of the Nauticus museum and Battleship Wisconsin in downtown Norfolk at the moment, and you'll spot a 93-foot-long vessel docked at the end of the pier.

The blue and white ship, dubbed the R/V Virginia, travels the waters of the Commonwealth and beyond as a research vessel for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at William & Mary.

It was built in 2018 to expand the institute's research capabilities, funded in part by about $9 million from the state, as well as private donations, said boat captain John Olney. VIMS uses it for its own research, but the vessel can also be commissioned for research by outside entities.

“It was built to pretty much cover any kind of science that somebody might be interested in doing," Olney said. 

Here's a look on board.

The  Virginia weighs 253 gross tons, has two engines and draws about 9.5 feet of water, Olney said.  

"The first thing you probably notice is it doesn't really have a steering wheel," he said as he entered the ship's control room.

Instead, he steers through an electronic system, along with looking at radar and other navigation controls.

One of the boat's more unique aspects, he said, is a "dynamic positioning system" that can hold it in place in high currents and winds. "We can just push a button and rather than putting out four or five anchors, the boat'll just hold itself in position."

The centerpiece of the research vessel is this "acoustic suite" featuring three types of acoustic systems, said Dustin Gregg, senior marine electronics technician. 

One is a Doppler current profiler, a device that uses sound waves to measure the speed and direction of currents throughout the water column, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Two advanced sonar systems also allow researchers to collect detailed data down to the ocean floor -- both about physical structures and living creatures.

"So if you go over an area and see something of interest, you can go back to it and get a really, really high resolution image of what you're looking at," Gregg said.

Currently, they're showing high-tech images of an old ironclad shipwreck in the Rappahannock River onscreen.

Other research includes monitoring right whale migrations, finding abandoned "ghost fishing pots" and surveying areas for construction like Dominion Energy's offshore wind farm.

Using sonar also helps reduce the amount of physical interaction researchers have with marine life, Gregg said. 

"That's less fish that are sacrificed for science. And you're affecting the whole ecosystem in a much, much lower way."

The Virginia's crew deploys this glider out in the ocean for a few months at a time, said research scientist Jack Slater.

It collects data and can automatically adjust its buoyancy to swim through the water.

Information about the water's temperature, depth and conductivity during tropical storms helps the scientists better predict and prepare for future weather systems.

VIMS will soon send gliders to Norway, for example, to study turbulence in the Norwegian Sea.

The ship can accommodate six scientists and five crew members, Olney said.   

VIMS uses the vessel for the Chesapeake Bay Multispecies Monitoring and Assessment Program that tracks populations of different fish species.

During fish surveys, they bring fish in trays to this "wet lab" containing scales and other equipment.  

Public tours aboard the  Virginia scheduled for this weekend have been canceled due to weather concerns.

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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