UWM research vessel captain: ‘Almost like you’re president & the United States is your ship’
I met Maxwell Martin Morgan within Milwaukee’s harbor district. We stood inside UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences, looking out giant doors onto the research vessel, the Neeskay, moored just outside.
Morgan, known by most everybody as "Captain," recalled when he first laid eyes on the Neeskay. “I worked on the Lake Guardian, which docks over there. I started there in 2011,” he said.
Before joining its crew, Morgan earned his undergrad degree in his home state of Michigan with a concentration on freshwater sciences.
The Lake Guardian travels the Great Lakes as the EPA's research vessel. “The Guardian goes to all the lakes. I’ve seen every nook and cranny of the Great Lakes that you can possibly go to,” Morgan said.
When in Milwaukee, the Lake Guardian shares the Neeskay’s dock.
Morgan felt himself drawn to Milwaukee and to continuing his studies here. The first time he officially boarded the Neeskay was as a master’s student. That was 2019.
“It was a field study course and we went up to Sturgeon Bay and we were looking at the hypoxia up there,” Morgan said.
Hypoxia is a dead zone, an area where there’s not enough oxygen in water for fish to survive. It’s caused by excessive runoff, especially from agriculture.
A strategic internship gave Morgan the opportunity to spend countless hours traveling on the Neeskay as researchers studied Lake Michigan.
“I went as a PSM, which is professional masters track, so you don’t do a thesis, you do an internship. And these guys, they were looking for a deckhand and saw me in the hallway one day and say, ‘Hey would you like to be the deckhand’ and I said, ‘Yes, that sounds great,’” Morgan recalled.
Morgan moved from deckhand to first mate. Two years later, the Neeskay’s longtime captain retired and then Morgan took over.
Morgan said it’s a year round job. “One thing the school does pride themselves on is that we do winter research. The first trip I had this year was in January and the last trip I had was in the middle of December."
Wintertime trips have included motoring about an underwater hydroacoustic telemetry research team.
When the Neeskay isn’t ferrying researchers, the crew is busy deploying monitoring buoys. They collect data from wave height to water quality and even transmit images every 10 minutes.
“We service [buoys] for NOAA and GLOS, which is the Great Lakes Observing System. So those gotta get out in the spring,” Morgan explained.
There are times when the vessel isn’t out and about. Downtime means maintenance.
“If we’re not out on the boat, I can guarantee you I’m not sitting in my office for very long ‘cause there’s something you have to do — change the oil, paint this part, replace this part.” Morgan added, “Especially on a boat that’s built in 1953.”
To be clear, Morgan’s not complaining. He loves his job. “I have my masters degree in freshwater science and technology, I’ve been working in the science field my whole career, but I’ve also been working on boats — so I’m good with both."
Morgan described being the captain of a large research vessel like the Neeskay as a multi-faceted job. “When you’re the captain, it’s almost like you’re the president of the United States and the United States is your ship. I mean you have to know everything from how the toilet works to how to drive and dock the boat. I mean, you really have to know it all."
And he said his background in science helps with the research onboard. “Because a lot of times you get ship captains out there ... but they may not know a lot about the research and they have to launch gear that’s very specific for certain science. So to be understanding of what they’re actually looking for and how that thing works is a very big advantage because I can adjust the ship or do things to get the best data possible."
Morgan has his own research interests that he’d love to dig into when time permits. He wants to contribute to what’s being learned about a nonnative, a small shrimp that has become key to Lake Michigan’s changed ecosystem.
"They have a cycle where they stay mostly on the bottom during the day to avoid predation and then at night, they come up to a certain level and they feed on the plankton." Morgan mused, "I’d like to try figure out ways to collect them efficiently and also different studies that we could come up with to get to know a little bit more about them."
For now, though, Morgan is focused on captaining the Neeskay — until the School of Freshwater Sciences raises enough money to retire the 70-year-old vessel and buy a new one.
He said the school is a few million shy of the $20 million needed. "I would say that within the next five years, we will be there or very close to being there with the new ship."
He hoped to captain the new vessel when that day comes. "I hope so, that would be great, that’s the plan ... as long as I don’t crash or sink before that," Morgan said with a laugh.