R/V Bob and Betty Beyster.

Scientific Workboat Expands Student Research Opportunities

R/V Bob and Betty Beyster is opening up nearshore research off Southern California

If you happened to be standing on the shore when Research Vessel (R/V) Bob and Betty Beyster zipped by, you might think it was a speed boat or pleasure craft. But this 42-foot scientific workboat means business, with capacity for six scientists and a boat operator, a range of 800 kilometers (500 nautical miles), and a cruising speed up to 28 knots.

Owned by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, the R/V Bob and Betty Beyster is expanding opportunities for students to study the coastal zone in Southern California. The new research vessel joined the fleet of Scripps ships in 2019, thanks to a philanthropic initiative that raised more than $1.2 million in honor of the late Dr. J. Robert Beyster, founder of Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), and his widow Betty Beyster.

Scientists and students at Scripps have long benefited from a fleet of research vessels to conduct oceanographic research at sea. But there was a need for a vessel with a nearshore range, low daily cost, and adaptability to support advanced research with local and global impact. R/V Bob and Betty Beyster checked all of those boxes.

“This vessel fully realizes our vision for a capable, efficient, and economical scientific work boat that can be used by students and researchers in San Diego's coastal waters,” said Bruce Appelgate, director of Ship Operations at Scripps. “It perfectly fills a niche between our major oceangoing vessels and smaller dive boats.”

R/V Bob and Betty Beyster was commissioned in April 2019, and is available for use by scientists, engineers, students, and educators supported by federal, state, local, and non-governmental agencies. The boat excels in providing scientists and others in the teaching community with opportunities to conduct local experiments, provide ocean-based education, and foster technology development.

“The size and day rates of the vessel have made it both useful and affordable,” said Brett Pickering, captain of R/V Bob and Betty Beyster and assistant boating safety officer at Scripps. “There's a lot of work space on the main back deck, so we're able to deploy moorings and other equipment that usually would occur off a bigger ship.”

Thanks to its ability to operate with a minimal number of people, R/V Bob and Betty Beyster has remained operational throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, even during the temporary stand-down of the U.S. Academic Research Fleet. Scientists onboard the vessel are following new procedures to ensure safety including social distancing, wearing masks, and operating with a reduced crew size.

With a cruising speed of 28 knots, the Beyster is nearly three times faster than the average research vessel. The boat is intended for single-day, nearshore cruises so it doesn’t have sleeping quarters. But due to its agility, the boat can facilitate certain projects in a more affordable and efficient manner than would be possible on a larger vessel.

 “We can take the boat from San Diego to Santa Barbara in about five-and-a-half hours. The boat has even worked from Morro Bay to 145 miles west of San Diego,” said Pickering.

The broad capability of the vessel enables it to support a diverse range of research missions including coastal geodetic surveys focused on cliff and beach erosion, marine archaeology research using small remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), physical oceanography projects, and biological surveys.

In addition to the boat’s impressive speed and range, it has an A-Frame for lifting up to 5,000 pounds, an adaptable deck foundation for configuring and securing equipment, and a computer-controlled engine system to automatically maintain position and heading. These features have already proven valuable for the research and technology development happening onboard the Beyster

The stern of a small research vessel at sea, with a team of researchers visible.
R/V Bob and Betty Beyster's A-frame can lift up to 5,000 pounds.

Instrument Deployment

Scripps Oceanography PhD student Eric Snyder has benefited from student access to the Beyster, using it six times over the past year for his research on the behavior of deep diving whales. He and other researchers with the Scripps Whale Acoustics Lab frequently use the vessel to deploy and recover instruments known as High-frequency Acoustic Recording Packages, or HARPs. For months at a time, these instruments sit on the seafloor with an underwater microphone, or hydrophone, recording sounds of marine mammals and other ocean noise, including human activities like shipping and sonar.

The resulting acoustic data, captured over periods of up to six months, allows scientists to better understand the ecology of marine animals and the impact of anthropogenic sounds on them. This data enables Snyder to recreate the paths that whales—including elusive species like Cuvier’s beaked whales—swam while foraging near the seafloor, often at depths of more than 1,000 meters (3,300 feet).

“We have a number of interesting and elusive species offshore Southern California,” said Snyder, “and the Beyster has allowed us to get out to our sites to recover instruments and deploy new ones much more quickly and frequently.”

Like many others, he’s impressed with the vessel’s speed, but for more personal reasons.

“Since the boat is so fast, we can get to our sites, do our work, and return home all in a single day. These trips would take a minimum of three or four days on other ships,” said Snyder. “As a graduate student with a child, it's much easier to find child care for these one-day trips, so I've had the opportunity to be involved in the actual data collection a lot more.”

Snyder and his colleagues have noted that the size of the Beyster has some unexpected benefits. Its compact setup allows the captain to operate the A-frame and crane—machinery used to raise, lower, and tow instruments—while just a short distance away from the deck. This vantage point gives the captain a good view of operations on the deck and allows for easy communication between all crew members.

Recovering acoustic packages can be a tricky operation, as they often have fairly delicate hydrophones that extend six meters above the base of the instrument. Unexpected swells and rocking can cause instruments to twist and sway as they’re being pulled up on the A-frame, which could lead to damaged equipment or even dangerous conditions without proper management.

Despite the ocean's unpredictable nature, the Beyster has aided in the safe recovery of many instruments, said Snyder. He credits the boat’s layout, coupled with the ship operator’s intuition and skillset, as key to this success, adding that the close-quarters communication is a “definite boon” in the recovery process.

Five scientists test on a small research vessel test an ocean instrument.
Scripps researchers test an instrument off the coast of San Diego.


The Beyster can be maneuvered from four different locations: a “normal setup” at the main helm and captain's chair; from the flybridge one deck up facing forward; from the flybridge looking aft (toward the stern of the boat); and from a joystick and hydraulic controls on the back deck, where the operator has eyes on the A-frame, winch, and crane.

“You're able to maneuver the boat and operate the hydraulic systems simultaneously,” said Pickering. “That doesn't happen on big ships and it's really not been anything that I've ever seen on a small boat.”

Scripps PhD student Vanessa ZoBell also noted the boat’s maneuverability and efficiency. As a member of Scripps Whale Acoustics Lab, she’s been out on the vessel twice; first to conduct a marine mammal visual survey off the coast just north of Mexico, and next to assist her lab mates with several HARP recoveries off the coast of Long Beach.

Beyster is really handy for quick trips—to not have to pay for one of those enormous vessels if you don’t really need all that space is key,” said ZoBell, who is studying ship noise impacts on humpback and fin whales in the Santa Barbara Channel.

While a larger vessel would be necessary for more remote or long-duration projects, ZoBell considers the Beyster’s compact size to be a bonus for her particular research interests.

“The deck is smaller, but you have the winch, and for our instruments it's enough space to deploy and retrieve at least three acoustic recording packages, which is enough for the Southern California area,” she said. “It’s also kind of cool because you get to do research just for your lab, which allows you to focus on a really specific question or job for the day.”

Both ZoBell and Snyder credit the vessel’s smaller size with creating an intimate research experience.

“While transiting, everyone sits and chats in the cabin with the captain,” said Snyder. “It creates a nice sense of camaraderie between captain and crew, which I feel makes the whole trip enjoyable.”

Delving into the Past

Scientists with the Scripps Center for Marine Archaeology (SCMA) have been using the Beyster in support of research that examines coastal sites where ancient civilizations once flourished. These sites, now submerged under rising seas, are found in far-away places like Greece and Israel, as well as closer to home, off the coastline near Scripps. Being able to conduct training and test equipment on the Beyster allows for greater efficiency when out in the field, particularly for those traveling to far-flung locales.

With a focus on marine geophysics and archaeology, Scripps PhD student Margaret Morris has been working on the Beyster, using sonar to find submerged archaeological sites that will give clues towards understanding how the first humans arrived and lived in Southern California. Over the next year, she plans to utilize the vessel to conduct broad surveys at three sites close to San Diego—Mission Bay, Del Mar, and Tijuana—before focusing on the site with the most archaeological potential.

“We don't know if there are well-preserved archeological sites there, so it will take some time and a careful approach to search these areas,” said Morris. “The vessel is good for this nearshore work; it can get to all of our research areas fairly quickly, and its precise positioning will help us get really nice survey lines. Once we’ve assessed the best site, we’ll do a high-resolution sonar survey to map the site in detail and see if we can find anything.”

Last July, Morris had her first experience on the Beyster to assist with instrument recoveries; this was also her first time ever onboard a research vessel. The following month, she joined Pickering and UC San Diego professors Isabel Rivera-Collazo, John Hildebrand, and Tom Levy—all members of the SCMA team—for a cruise to deploy a mini-ROV to a depth of 70 meters (230 feet) off San Diego. The mini-ROV is an underwater robot tethered to the vessel and maneuvered by the researchers on the boat, that sends images and video back to the ship. SCMA researchers will utilize this instrumentation to map and explore archaeological sites that are deeper than divers are able to go.

Morris gained first-hand experience testing the ability of the ROV’s camera to identify the characteristics of the seafloor, as well as the responsiveness of the ROV's grabber. In preparation for her PhD research, she also assisted the team with testing a multibeam sonar unit to map the seafloor off San Diego in high resolution.

“I was being trained on how to operate the equipment,” said Morris. “We ran the multibeam and then we stopped and used the ROV, partly so I could learn to use it, and so everyone could get it integrated with the boat.”

The team is currently working on building a transducer, custom-made to fit the Beyster, to detect specific kinds of artifacts, such as stone tools. Morris hopes to test this equipment on the vessel before conducting her three preliminary surveys.

Four researchers inside a research vessel have a meeting.
Scientists and students with the Scripps Center for Marine Archaeology conduct research onboard R/V Bob and Betty Beyster in the summer of 2019.

Student-Focused Approach

The ways in which the Beyster has been able to support student learning is perhaps one of its greatest achievements so far, said Pickering.

“We train our scientists and our students to help do all the operations to run a deck safely for deploying and recovering instruments and help keep the whole operation safe,” he said.

This is a hallmark of all Scripps vessels, as students frequently assist with hands-on work on larger vessels such as R/V Sally Ride or R/V Robert Gordon Sproul. Even on these major ships, the marine technicians instruct students and scientists how to conduct deck operations to deploy and recover instruments with a focus on safety.

“This characteristic has always set Scripps apart from other institutions, due to the intensive hands-on experience we provide. We create outstanding young seagoing scientists this way,” said Appelgate. “What we're doing aboard Beyster is the same—although on an even more personal scale.”

- This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of Marine Technology magazine by the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME). It is republished here with permission.

Sign Up For
Explorations Now

explorations now is the free award-winning digital science magazine from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Join subscribers from around the world and keep up on our cutting-edge research.