NEWPORT, Ore. - Two volunteers at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center will cast off next week for a six-week research cruise to the equatorial Pacific, where they will blog about their adventures.

Salem retirees Michael Courtney and Annie Thorp will join a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration crew aboard the R/V Wecoma on a mission to repair, maintain and, if necessary, replace 14 buoys moored to the seabed several hundred miles south and west of Central America. The buoys form the easternmost part of an array of 70 positioned along the equator and stretching across the Pacific to north of New Guinea; they gather data about tropical atmospheric and ocean conditions.

Data from the buoys is transmitted in real-time by satellite to researchers around the world, and NOAA makes the data available online via the project Web site at

The buoys form the backbone of NOAA's Tropical Atmosphere/Ocean project, a major component of several important international scientific observation systems, including the El Niño/Southern Oscillation Observing System, the Global Climate Observing System  and the Global Ocean Observing System. Major support for the array comes from the United States and Japan, with additional contributions from France. The U.S. arm of the project is based at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle.

For Courtney and Thorp, the opportunity to serve as shipboard volunteers is a way to "stay engaged with others and to stretch our minds, to continue our own learning and to help others learn, and to provide help and assistance wherever we can," said Courtney. The research cruise leaves Newport on March 1, with a planned return date of April 10.

It's the second Wecoma trip for the married couple, who took part in a similar NOAA cruise last fall; the third overall for Thorp, who served as a Teacher-at-Sea aboard the vessel in 2004 while working as an instructor at Chemeketa Community College. (Courtney, a retired mental health counselor, also has a background in mechanics, construction, and overseas water and health projects.)

During their 2009 trip, they kept a photo-illustrated journal of their experience as hands-on shipboard volunteers and periodically emailed it to Bill Hanshumaker, Sea Grant public marine educator at Hatfield's Visitor Center, to share with the center's other volunteers. The couple joined the center's volunteer corps last summer, but their involvement in its training and life-long learning programs stretches back 17 years.

This year they're casting a wider net. With help from Oregon Sea Grant, they've created a blog called "Buoy Tales" that will allow them to share their journal entries and photographs with anyone who's interested in reading them - as long as the ship's Internet connections permit. In particular, they're hoping to reach science teachers and their students. Readers will be able to post comments and questions on the blog.

Courtney and Thorp see the adventure as a logical extension of a lifelong love of water, the ocean and travel; they've long enjoyed boating, kayaking and surfing.

"Going to sea provides us with a way to use all our talents and abilities, to teach, to work hard, to learn, and to have fun on the water," said Courtney. "Not everyone shares our desire to do the unusual, to face challenges, and to operate outside of their comfort zone, but we love it."

The journal can be read at and is also featured on the HMSC Visitor Center Web site at .


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Michael Courtney