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Tour the Gloria Michelle
Video courtesy WCAI NPR station

R/V Gloria Michelle

NEFSC Research Vessel Has Colorful History

These days the 72-foot research vessel Gloria Michelle can be found conducting groundfish or shrimp surveys in New England waters or involved in special projects for NOAA Fisheries Service or for other scientific research organizations in the Northeast. When not at sea, it is docked at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s (NEFSC’s) Woods Hole Laboratory, where its current mission is far different than in its colorful past.

Netted in a Drug Case, Landed for Research Use

The steel-hulled vessel was built to fish for shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico by Diesel Shipbuilding of Jacksonville, Florida in 1974. In 1979 the ship was seized by U.S. Customs with a cargo of 16 tons of marijuana aboard, stowed in the fish hold. After the trial for what was then the largest drug bust in Mississippi’s history, the vessel was mothballed in a backwater bayou near Biloxi, Mississippi, its fate uncertain.

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The Woods Hole Laboratory's 72-foot research vessel Gloria Michelle at the dock in Woods Hole. (Credit: Shelley Dawicki, NEFSC/NOAA)
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Gloria Michelle (left) and Rorqual in winter at the dock in Gloucester. (Credit: Jack Moakley, NEFSC/NOAA)
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Gloria Michelle at sunset at the Woods Hole Laboratory dock. (Credit: Antonie Chute, NEFSC/NOAA)

Jack Moakley, then a lieutenant (jg) in the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, recognized its potential as a modern research platform. Moakley was assigned to the Conservation Engineering Group at the National Marine Fisheries Service laboratory in Gloucester, Mass.

Moakley was captain of the lab’s research vessel, a nearly 40-year-old former Army harbor tug named Rorqual. He was looking for a more modern vessel to use for gear design and testing, and for scientific studies. He came across the Gloria Michelle on a federal surplus property list. He contacted Customs, the General Services Administration, and the U.S. Attorney in Louisiana to inquire about the vessel’s availability and its suitability for research in the Northeast.

After a lot of paperwork, many phone calls, several trips to Mississippi, and payment of $4,000 in storage fees, Moakley’s persistence paid off. The vessel was released to NOAA Fisheries Service and the Gloucester lab. After cleaning it up a bit and repainting green and white over its original powder blue, he and a crew sailed the vessel north to New England for refurbishment before it began its new (and legitimate) career. Moakley served as its first NOAA captain.

Conversion and Redemption

Unlike the Rorqual, the Gloria Michelle was originally built to be a fishing boat. It had a refrigerated fish hold, a much larger deck area suitable for research, and nearly twice the horsepower. Although it required extensive modifications and upgrades to function as a research vessel, the Gloria Michelle was a welcome and much needed replacement for the aging Rorqual, which was sold at public auction.

While many things on the vessel have changed, one thing remains the same: the vessel’s name. Moakley said that while other names were considered, the original name, Gloria Michelle, seemed to best suit the vessel. Also, if you are the superstitious sort, some consider it bad luck to change a vessel’s name.

In its early years of service for NOAA, the ship was homeported in Gloucester, Mass. and used for cooperative experiments testing scallop dredges, beam trawls and groundfish nets to help reduce bycatch. In the mid-1980s, Conservation Engineering group was transferred to the NEFSC’s Narragansett, Rhode Island laboratory. The Gloria Michelle and her crew went with it.

A few years later, the Gloria Michelle was transferred to the NEFSC’s new lab in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. It stayed there during the early 1990s before finding its current home at the center’s Woods Hole Laboratory.

What's She Like Today?

Now painted deep blue with a white deckhouse and equipped with an articulated crane to deploy and recover equipment, the Gloria Michelle has been extensively modified and upgraded through the years to the point where only its hull and name remain original.

The vessel is powered by a Caterpillar main engine which uses biodiesel fuel and has a single, fixed pitch propeller. The Gloria Michelle operates in the coastal waters from Virginia to Canada, usually spending no more than five days at a time at sea. Two commissioned NOAA Corp officers run the boat. They bring on deck hands intermittently as safety and operations require. Eight passengers can make overnight trips, and up to 14 can make day trips.

Gloria Michelle Missions

Typical cruises include groundfish surveys in the spring and fall for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, and a summer Gulf of Maine shrimp survey.

The groundfish surveys, which began in 1982, are each three weeks long. A crew of three to four vessel hands and four or five scientists work day trips seven days a week until the cruise objectives have been accomplished.

The Gulf of Maine shrimp survey is conducted in July and August over a four-week period. Ten crew and scientists embark for five days at a time for the survey, which is a joint effort between the NEFSC and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

Special projects make up the rest of the ship’s operating schedule, which usually runs between April and October. These projects vary. Examples include deploying a wave data buoy in Rhode Island Sound for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, multi-beam sonar mapping to testing new technology, recovering equipment lost by other vessels, and conducting photo identification of marine mammals. When the vessel is not underway, the crew is busy with maintenance, repairs, upgrades, and planning for future work.

In 1994, the Gloria Michelle was used by the Food and Drug Administration to sample seafood in and around a toxic waste dumping ground in Massachusetts Bay. The seafood was found to be safe.

Notable Gloria Michelle Crew Members

Rear Admiral Jonathan Bailey, Director of the NOAA Corps and Director of the NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, sailed aboard the Gloria Michelle as captain during his sea-going career.

Jack Moakley went on to captain other, larger NOAA research vessels. As a civilian, he eventually became the NEFSC Chief of Operations and oversaw operation of Gloria Michelle, the ship that he secured and first helmed.

In 2012, NOAA Corps’ Lt. Anna-Liza Villard-Howe and Ensign Shannon Hefferan became NOAA’s first all-female ship’s crew, when Villard-Howe became the Gloria Michelle's captain and Hefferan the ship’s junior officer-in-charge.

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