Ocean Community News

New Chapter for MBARI’s Flagship Research Vessel Western Flyer

After 25 years as MBARI’s flagship research vessel, the Western Flyer will begin an important new chapter inspiring and educating a new generation of ocean explorers. The custom-designed ship will become a sailing classroom for the Florida Institute of Oceanography (FIO).

MBARI is granting the Western Flyer to the University of South Florida, which hosts FIO, for use as a sailing classroom, providing an opportunity for students who dream of a career in ocean science, engineering, and marine operations to learn about the ocean.

“We’re thrilled the Western Flyer will be sailing on to an exciting new chapter at the Florida Institute of Oceanography,” said MBARI President and CEO Chris Scholin. “The ocean plays a vital role in sustaining life on Earth. With the Western Flyer, the Florida Institute of Oceanography can inspire new ocean explorers who will help us better understand our amazing blue planet and preserve it for future generations.”

“I can’t think of a better new home for the Western Flyer than the Florida Institute of Oceanography and no better new vocation than ocean education,” said Julie Packard, who chairs MBARI’s board of trustees and is executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium—MBARI’s education and conservation partner. “The Western Flyer will help make careers in ocean science, engineering, and conservation more accessible to everyone who is passionate about the sea.”

2 Western Flyer FIO event 02 cropped 640On Tuesday, October 18, MBARI Director of Marine Operations Michael Kelly (left) presented FIO Director Monty Graham (center) and FIO DEI Program Director Qu’Derrick Covington (right) with a plaque honoring the legacy of the R/V Western Flyer and celebrating its next chapter. Image: Susan von Thun © 2022 MBARI

FIO will be providing students with a unique mix of at-sea and on-shore training and mentoring that will build ocean science, engineering, and maritime trade skills. The new program will focus on engaging students from historically black colleges and universities, minority-serving institutions, and tribal colleges. “The Florida Institute of Oceanography is thrilled to help write the next chapter of the Western Flyer’s story. We see tremendous opportunity to use this floating classroom to increase access to marine science and build a future ocean STEM workforce that reflects a rich diversity of people, backgrounds, and experiences,” said FIO Director Monty Graham.

Constructed in 1996 with a unique twin hull design, the 117-foot SWATH vessel represented David Packard’s vision of developing innovative new platforms to better access and explore the ocean. SWATH, which stands for small waterplane area twin hull, means the ship is much more stable than more common monohull vessels. Because of the stability of its twin hull design, the Western Flyer is a particularly good platform for novice sailors. The ship was also specially constructed as a platform to deploy, operate, and recover remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). For much of its time at MBARI the Western Flyer worked together with the Doc Ricketts—MBARI’s ROV capable of exploring to depths of 4,000 meters (2.5 miles).

3 Western Flyer final cruise expedition team 640The Western Flyer completed its final mission for MBARI earlier this month, with an expedition to Station M, an MBARI research site off the coast of Central California. Image: © 2022 MBARI

After more than 500 research cruises, the Western Flyer completed its final mission earlier this month in Monterey Bay and leaves behind a rich legacy of accomplishments: from mapping the seafloor of Monterey Canyon to discovering magnificent coral gardens at Sur Ridge to identifying more than 200 new species, including a remarkable crown jelly, a harp sponge, and even a new species of bone-eating worms named in honor of the Western Flyer. During its quarter-century at MBARI, the Western Flyer traveled beyond its home base of Monterey Bay, allowing researchers to study underwater volcanoes around Hawaii, the history of earthquakes and tsunamis in the Cascadia Subduction Zone along the Oregon coast, and hydrothermal vents in the Pescadero Basin in Mexico’s Gulf of California.

The formal transfer of the vessel will take place on November 15. After undergoing shipyard maintenance, the Western Flyer will sail to St. Petersburg, Florida, via the Panama Canal in early January 2023.

MBARI’s science operations will continue aboard the research vessel Rachel Carson while construction of a new state-of-the-art research vessel is underway at Freire Shipyard in Vigo, Spain. The R/V David Packard will join MBARI’s fleet in late 2023.

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