The Human Backbone of the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study (BATS)

In the late 1980s Rod Johnson was working in the UK civil service—a “fantastic job” by his own account—when he attended a meeting concerning the Global Ocean Flux Study (GOFS). During this meeting a topic of discussion was how Bermuda and Hawaii would be pivotal in achieving the GOFS objectives of understanding biogeochemical variability in the oceans and the impact of climate change on these processes.  At the time, Johnson’s girlfriend (Sarah), now his wife, had just moved to Bermuda and, in a move that would impact the course of his career, he decided to contact Dr. Tony Knap, then-Director of BIOS (at the time BBS), to inquire about employment opportunities.

The opportunity turned out to be one that he couldn’t pass up: getting in on the ground floor of the nascent Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study (BATS) program in a position that offered the opportunity for field work and data collection, as well as the chance to work not just on physical oceanography, but also ocean biogeochemical cycles.

Johnson said, “I thought I’d come (to Bermuda) for a year and try it out, but the first year went by so quickly.” He went on to describe how, in the early days, there were only two technicians (Rachel Dow and himself) working for BATS, which translated to 7-day workweeks and very long days. “The first year,” he said, “was quite a shock, but highly rewarding and a sharp contrast to the formalities of the civil service.”

In 1989, with support from the MacNichol Fund, oceanographer Dr. Tony Michaels joined the staff and assumed operational oversight of BATS; in Johnson’s words, “one of the best hires the station ever made.” Michaels, with his biological background and business acumen, soon developed many collaborations with other investigators and strengthened the program through diversification. Johnson is quick to point out that, “Without this approach, the continuation of BATS would have been questionable after year three.” Over the next few years Johnson and his BATS colleagues started to prove they were up to the challenge of providing consistent, quality data while much of Dr. Knap’s growth plan for the institute was coming to fruition. 

With BATS data being pushed out in the community and published, as well as the acquisition of a new vessel (the R/V Weatherbird II, used for the first time on BATS cruise 13) and the implementation of a “time share network” for techs, the BATS program saw significant growth in the 1990s. Equally important during this period was the introduction of young progressive scientists, Drs Nicholas Bates, Craig Carlson, Dennis Hansell and Debbie Steinberg, who quickly developed excellent reputations in their respective science disciplines. For Johnson this was also a time of significant growth as he became involved in data analysis and synthesis with the new scientists, as well as research proposals, in addition to his day-to-day responsibilities of controlling the BATS data and working on BATS cruises.

However, this would all change in 1996 when Tony Michaels left for the University of Southern California’s Wrigley Institute of Marine Sciences, essentially leaving Johnson to assume the role of managing the day-to-day operation of BATS. According to Johnson, this was both challenging and the most rewarding. He recalls, “The collaborations and involvement with research staff were very good. I had to learn—and am still learning—how to manage and create a functioning research team with individuals from different backgrounds that work well together, but also independently. Over the years more than 50 research techs have come through the BATS project, each making valuable contributions before moving on with their careers. As a result, I have colleagues all over the world – a network with lots of positive relationships.”

One of the biggest responsibilities Johnson currently shoulders is trying to work with the BATS team to develop their skills in such a way allows them to advance in their careers after leaving BIOS. “BATS is such a good platform for prospective oceanographic research scientists, both for those wishing to pursue PhD’s or career technicians, and it’s our responsibility to help ensure they progress,” says Johnson.

When asked about the significance of the 25-year anniversary of BATS, Johnson remarks that, “The fact that we just completed 297 cruises at the end of 25 years—just 3 less than the expected 300 for monthly occupations—and recently secured another 5 years of NSF funding is a fantastic testament to all the hard work of the research technicians, principal investigators and BIOS support staff, especially the marine department and crews of the research vessels. Not bad for a small institute in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Though, oddly enough, the impression at times seems to be that BATS cruises ‘just happen’ but, having been at the heart of the operational hub for so long, I know they happen because a dedicated team of ‘core’ research technicians have the desire to assume responsibility and get the job done. They recognize that the next cruise is more important than the last and never get complacent that it’s ‘just another cruise!’” 

In terms of operational highlights the arrival of the R/V Atlantic Explorer at BIOS is, for Johnson, the clear stand out. He recalls, “It was getting very difficult to maintain research teams and crew for R/V Weatherbird II due to its limited size. Even more worrying was the lack of interest from perspective collaborators to undertake research on the vessel.” The arrival of the R/V Atlantic Explorer significantly raised the bar for conducting integrated oceanographic research off Bermuda and made the experience of going to sea much more rewarding. BATS Principal Investigators (PIs), in particular Dr. Mike Lomas, were able to reinvigorate collaborations and usher in a new era of investigations.

Speaking of BATS’ future, Johnson believes the program is currently in a strong position with lead PI Dr. Nicholas Bates, fellow Co PIs Dr. Mike Lomas and Dr. Debbie Steinberg, and core research staff Steve Bell, Matt Enright, Joanna Jones, Sam Monk and Violetta Paba. He is optimistic that BATS will continue to grow at BIOS due, in part, to the complementary autonomous technologies being pushed forward by BIOS Director Dr. Bill Curry. Johnson says, “Understanding anthropogenic induced oceanic change has never been more pressing and BIOS, with its multiple timeseries programs and a highly capable research vessel, is well equipped to undertake these scientific quests in the deep ocean.”

Thinking back over the last quarter century Johnson reflects, “It’s been an interesting 25 years to say the least and I consider myself very fortunate to be part of the BATS mission. Collaborations and science contributions with all the BATS related scientists continue to be rewarding, but it’s the real life experiences both onshore and offshore with all the research teams and ships crews that is priceless. Ironically, the 25th Anniversary BATS cruise also reminds me that if I had stayed in my previous job I could have retired after 25 years service, but that would have been too easy!”