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Background photo by Tom Lyons

Amy Kukulya

Underwater Explorer

When I first came here, all I had to do was open my mouth and say “scallop,” and people would say, “You’re from New Jersey!” So I sat there and practiced: scawlop, scawlop, scawlop.

•••

After graduating with a degree in environmental policy from Rutgers and finishing a program in Puerto Rico, I came back to New Jersey and spent two weeks looking through all of the programs I had applied to next. That’s when I came across the folder: Americorps Cape Cod. I hadn’t even remembered that I applied for it. And I was like, “Cape Cod—where’s that?”

Amy Kukulya

During that time in Americorps, I basically spent months and months in a lab in Woods Hole, going out to the flats and collecting scallops and oysters, coming back to the lab, and playing scientist. That enabled me to make connections in Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

I started at WHOI in June 2001, working in the biology department . . . Scott Gallagher, one of the senior scientists in the biology department, went to Antarctica and Japan within my first four months of working there and left me in a lab by myself. He asked me if I could grow plankton from a Petri dish into 50-gallon Kalwall tubes. I thought, Sure, no problem (laughs). I can’t even explain the experience of calling around the world for specific strains of phytoplankton.

When Scott went to Antarctica, he used this remote operating vehicle (ROV) called SeaRover. It got banged up in the ice, and it got sent back to the lab. It was the kind of thing where there really wasn’t a manual.

I had absolutely no technical experience with it whatsoever. I spent a couple of months learning this ROV, then I went down to Antarctica to do plankton surveys . . . And the SeaRover got banged up in the ice again. I took out my notebook full of drawings, and I had to build this thing back up. That was my first instance of being thrown in the fire, really being tested, finding out if I could make it happen. And I did. It was one of the biggest professional awakenings I’ve ever had.

One day, I called someone in the engineering department, and it turns out they were doing a tunnel inspection project for the first time—they needed someone to help on this survey of an aqueduct in upstate New York. I showed up, and before I knew it, I was with all the guys on the front page of the New York Times (laughs). And I transferred from biology and joined the REMUS (Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS) group a little over nine years ago.

•••

I’ve been called an oceanographic engineer, a robotics engineer, a robotics technician. My parents still think I’m an oceanographer. The job title doesn’t matter: You work with robots, you work on the ocean, and that’s all people want to know.

The REMUS is an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). They’re very good at taking instructions, to get where they need to go, and they almost always come back. That’s important in the sense that it extends human reach into the oceans into places that people can’t get to, whether it’s too deep or too dangerous.

One REMUS is the equivalent of something like 10 men. Once the REMUS was bought by the military, it trickled down to the university and the private sector. Now, it’s a well-respected, very successful autonomous vehicle that can reach from the surface down to 6,000 meters deep.

There’s no limitation to what it can do, with the exception of running out of batteries and how deep it can go. And those are two questions that my lab and other robotics labs at WHOI are constantly trying to address: Let’s go deeper, let’s go further. The basic limitation of the vehicle is your imagination and what you want to look for.

Over the last nine years, I’ve been on more than 120 expeditions . . . Who doesn’t like traveling to Antarctica and Greenland and New Zealand and Hawaii? Traveling is fantastic, but everybody wants purpose, and there’s purpose to each mission that we do.

•••

Where else but Falmouth can you go to a bar and be surrounded by physicists, geologists, all kinds of oceanographers, and some of the most intriguing people in the world all having a pint of Guinness, and you don’t even have to talk about science?

Most people here, if they don’t already love the ocean, they’re intrigued and they want to get to know it a little better.

As soon as the line is let go from the dock, I’m gone. I’m nowhere near work. It’s a mental checkout. Going fishing, going clamming, lobstering—the lobstering in particular.  It’s not always about getting lobster. It’s an excuse. I have the responsibility to get out there because I have these pots out in the Elizabeth Islands.

I have an advantage from all of the imagery that’s been collected from the AUVs—I know where all of the rock piles are. For a while, I was obsessed with finding the optimal area to catch lobsters. I’ve sort of dialed that down. If I catch a lobster, great. If I don’t, hey, at least I’m out here.

About

Jeff is the Managing Editor for Cape Cod Life Publications.

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