GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - It comes with a fancy kitchen, bunks with separate restrooms and all sorts of oceanography gadgets. The University of Southern Mississippi's newest and largest research vessel is getting ready to take the first group of students on an offshore expedition this weekend.
About a week after docking at its new home at the Port of Gulfport, the Point Sur is getting ready to launch its research expedition. On Saturday, the 135 foot vessel will take 40 USM students 12 miles out to collect marine and mud samples and conduct depth and density studies.
"This will be the first opportunity for most of these people to actually get offshore, and here we'll give them an opportunity to take a real oceanographic vessel," said Dr. Monty Graham, USM Marine Science Department Chair.
The vessel was purchased this year from the San Jose State University Research Foundation. It came equipped with a variety of oceanography instruments, from water collectors that can trap samples, to large cranes that can lower heavy equipment over the side of the ship.
"Basically, it was turnkey. That means it was ready to go," said Graham.
Walk inside, and the first thing you'll see is an open lab. In the bridge, you can watch the experiments unfold.
"I can control the wenches. I can control the engines. I have duplicate navigation systems," said Port Captain Max Wike.
Check out the kitchen, with stainless steel appliances and a walk-in cooler and freezer. That's where a chef can prepare meals during those long trips. There are also 21 bunks with separate bathrooms.
No wonder the Point Sur is known as "a floating laboratory with hotel accommodations."
"We're trying to add four or six new bunks so we can take rather than 12 scientists, we can take 18 scientists," said Graham. "We're hoping in the future to have a remotely operated vehicle attached to the vessel so that we can do real underwater exploration."
The scientists and students can now spend three weeks at sea, gaining invaluable experience as they explore the Gulf of Mexico and conduct research on the BP oil spill.
"I'm incredibly excited about this," said Graham. "Everybody is on board with this, because they see the potential advantage that USM has for both education and research."
A $1 million grant from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality covered the cost of purchasing the ship and sailing it from California to Gulfport. Other agencies can also lease it for research, which will generate funds to operate the vessel.