Encounters with octopi, oyster farms and ocean views: Life at the Duke University Marine Lab

<p>View of the Marine Lab from Bookhout Laboratory.&nbsp;</p>

View of the Marine Lab from Bookhout Laboratory. 

As senior India Haber headed to the laundry room at Duke’s Marine Lab to switch her clothes to the dryer, she suddenly had a bucket with an octopus shoved into her hands. 

Daniel Rittschof, Norman L. Christensen distinguished professor of environmental sciences, had spotted Haber from across the quad and had called her over to hold the octopus, before promptly leaving it with her. 

The octopus tried to crawl out of the bucket, but Haber managed to wrestle it back in long enough to text her friends to come see it. She released it into the ocean before doing her laundry. 

Encounters with octopi aren’t as common as dolphin sightings at the Marine Lab in Beaufort, N.C., but students there are guaranteed to see creatures more exciting than the West Campus squirrels.  

The Marine Lab is three hours away from Durham on Piver’s Island, which Duke shares with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. But it’s far more than just a lab: it has dorms, a dining hall, a library, multiple research labs, a drone lab, classroom spaces and abundant views of the ocean. 

Chosen for its location on the southern tip of the Outer Banks, the Marine Lab has access to the distinctive ocean off Cape Hatteras and the salt marshes and estuaries along the coast. The Rachel Carson Reserve, with its wild ponies, is a short kayak distance away.

The Marine Lab functions year-round with resident natural scientists and social scientists working together, according to Andy Read, the director of the Marine Lab and Stephen A. Toth distinguished professor of marine biology in the Nicholas School of the Environment. 

“We bring that kind of breadth and interdisciplinarity to solving problems in a way that I don’t think any other Marine Lab in the world does,” Read said.

The Shearwater Research Vessel.
Courtesy of Sophie Maginnis
The Shearwater Research Vessel.

Every season offers a different way to experience and learn at the Marine Lab. The fall semester is similar to the fall term at Duke’s main campus, but in the spring, students can enroll in travel courses that take marine learning to a global scale. Students enrolled in travel courses have spent time in Singapore, Australia and on the Shearwater, a multimillion-dollar research vessel at the Marine Lab. 

Summer terms offer classes like organic chemistry that many students take to fulfill pre-health requirements. Heading straight to the swim dock after lecture or to the beach after an exam makes studying chemical reactions slightly more tolerable.

Some students, like Haber, knew they wanted to go to the Marine Lab when applying to Duke. 

Haber is spending her third semester at the Lab this fall. She started at the Lab in 2020 when the University’s COVID-19 restrictions limited much of the typical main campus experience.

One of Haber’s favorite parts of the Lab is the close-knit community there, she said. 

“Even the [doctoral] students who are your professors will come and hang out with you at lunch and chat about whatever in the world they want to,” Haber said.

She enjoys the community coffees, where everyone on the island comes together to drink coffee and chat between class times. The informal meetings and networking that happen on the island have helped her build relationships with professors.

Everyone goes by their first name at the Marine Lab, including professors. And with the small class sizes, it’s easy to get to know everyone. This intimacy is what Read likes most about the Marine Lab.

“We’re small, so everybody gets lots of attention. We look after each other and we have a really strong culture,” Read said. 

The island setting also fosters a focused environment. Students are removed from the busyness of the Durham campus and have time to focus on research and independent projects. 

“The Marine Lab offers a slightly decompressed experience,” Read said. 

View of the Boathouse and one of the dorms on the main quad.
View of the Boathouse and one of the dorms on the main quad.

Students can also destress by spending time with the campus cats: the overweight tabby Captain Sly, another tabby called Third Cat and Domino, a black and white cat who’s friendly with the security guards. 

There are a range of research opportunities at the Lab. Haber studies dolphin echolocation by sitting out on the Shearwater or at the docks and eavesdropping on dolphin calls under the water. Another student, senior Maddie Paris, studied parasites in clams. 

One year, Read got a call from a former student working for the local whale-stranding network in the Outer Banks. She told him that they had found a sperm whale that had beached and died, and she offered to give Read part of the whale to dissect. 

Read wanted to give his Marine Mammals class the chance to dissect the whale’s head. But transporting the head of a 25-foot-long juvenile sperm whale wasn’t easy. The head had to be dragged from the sandbar off Hatteras Island, placed in a truck and transported by ferry to the Marine Lab. The dissection was “spectacularly messy,” Read said.

Classroom flexibility is a hallmark of studying at the Marine Lab. 

“You're outside at night, and you've never been outside at night, and you run into something like an alligator, or a very large fish, or something tiny like a blue crab. Then I learn how people think and what excites them,” Rittschof said. “I try and customize the laboratories and the kinds of exercises they do to things they find interesting because if they're fun, they're much more productive.” 

About a 20-minute boat ride away from the Marine Lab is the campus aquafarm created in 2018 by Thomas Shultz, assistant professor of the practice of marine molecular conservation and director of undergraduate studies at the Marine Lab. 

The oyster farm occupies a 0.6-acre square plot in the ocean marked off with four poles and five lines of black mesh bags each filled with 150 to 200 oysters. As students stand waist-deep in the water and flip bags, they occasionally find stone crabs shyly burying themselves underneath the collected oysters. 

“The aquafarm is about students getting their feet in the mud, which is very much a Marine Lab experience,” Shultz said. “You can jump off the boat, get your feet in the mud, go raise some food, some delicious oysters.”

Paris, the student who is researching parasites in clams, is spending her fourth semester at the Marine Lab this fall—and she is loving it. 

“If you can possibly change your schedule and make it work, you should come here at least for a summer,” Paris said. “It's not for everyone all the time, but there's a little something for everyone. And if you like community, and you like being outside, even a little bit, it's the place to be.” 


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