New Bellingham Bay buoy helps students, scientists gather data in marine waters

Western Today staff

Western Washington University is working with Northwest Indian College and University of Washington to place and maintain an ocean buoy that will deliver important new data about Bellingham Bay while giving area marine science students experience with scientific data collection.

Western’s research vessel RV Magister, based at Shannon Point Marine Sciences Center, deployed the buoy Feb. 11, and students from all three schools will help maintain it. “We expect the data sets to be used in multiple classes at Western, and for students to have opportunities to participate in turnaround cruises, where they’ll experience how oceanography is done in the real world,” said Erika McPhee-Shaw, director of Shannon Point.  

Plus, McPhee-Shaw explained, “Once these data sets have been streaming for a few years their value will be immense.”

The project is led by the Portland-based Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction (CMOP), a scientific partnership funded by the National Science Foundation to transcend traditional scientific, educational, and societal boundaries in order to understand complex issues in coastal margins such as watersheds, estuaries and tidal areas.

“It’s impressive to see NWIC students helping Western and UW collect important data from our oceans,” said Washington State Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island. “The collaboration between these three schools is key to monitoring what goes on in these waters.”

The buoy measures wind and air pressure and other atmospheric attributes. It also has sensors to measure conditions in the bay, such as temperature, salinity, oxygen, pH and chlorophyll.  These data are valuable to understanding the base of the marine ecosystem and issues such as hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and ocean acidification (reduction of pH).

“It is difficult to overstate the new understanding we gain of hour-to-hour and week-to-week variability,” McPhee-Shaw said, “the true ‘ocean weather’ of the system, that we can only start to see when we implement in-situ observing systems like this one.”

UW and NWIC worked with Western and the Lummi Nation Natural Resources Department to find a site for the buoy and design its features. NWIC students will monitor the buoy, which will provide oceanographic data needed to understand fluctuations in harvested species like Dungeness crab and clams.

“NWIC students are excited about this project because it blends the latest technology with the needs of the Lummi community,” said Marco Hatch, director of the Salish Sea Research Center at NWIC. “This buoy will give students real-time place-based data that can provide environmental context for in-class and capstone research.”

Through CMOP, NWIC students also joined UW students on oceanography research cruises out of UW Friday Harbor. 

“For many years NWIC students have enjoyed oceanographic opportunities provided by UW and CMOP; through this buoy we will continue this partnership,” Hatch said. “In fact a number of students have stated that going on these cruises solidified their desire to become marine scientists.”

The Lummi Nation named the buoy “Se'lhaem,” for an island that used to be located near the mouth of the Nooksack River. The island was important to the Lummi community as a place for harvesting butter clams, horse clams and cockles.

Project lead and UW Oceanographer Jan Newton said, “This has been such a great project, to bring together students to gain very real experience with technology and science, to work with so many partners, and to provide much needed high-quality data about this part of the Salish Sea. Best of all, it will be a lasting legacy.”

The public will be able to see the data through the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems at


Friday, February 12, 2016 - 11:25am

Zoe Parsons, a technician with University of Washington's Applied Physics Lab, is among the scientists and technicians on the deck of WWU's MV Magister preparing to launch a monitoring buoy into Bellingham Bay. Photo by Erika McPhee Shaw for Western Today