George Gunther, captain of the R/V Atlantic Explorer, has worked at the helm of scientific research vessels for more than twenty years. Trained by the United States Coast Guard as a Navigator and Vessel Inspections Officer, he has also captained a cruise ship, an ice-breaker ship, and an ocean-going tug boat, all of which have given him the opportunity to travel around the world in support of various industrial and scientific enterprises.
Growing up in South Rhode Island as one of five children, George Gunther, 55, spent most of his free time on a boat either fishing or tending to his family’s lobster traps. The saltwater soaked into his veins, so to speak, and when he turned 20, his father co-signed a loan for a 38-foot (12-meter) houseboat, which Gunther proceeded to live on for a decade.
Despite his love of the ocean, he graduated from the Community College of Rhode Island with a degree in business management. Afterward, he enrolled at the University of Rhode Island where he was working toward a degree in sociology to satisfy his curiosity of different cultures around the world. A year later, he was offered a job as the director at a home for adjudicated adolescents, or teenagers who had been found guilty of committing misdemeanors. His calm demeanor and natural presence—he stands 6’4” tall—proved to be an asset as he worked with social workers, parents, judges, and police departments to integrate these adolescents into the community again.
Captain George's view from the bridge of the research vessel Atlantic Explorer. Photo by George Gunther.
The allure of the seas proved to be too strong, however, and a few years later he joined the United States Coast Guard (USCG) with the goal of obtaining his captain’s license for ships. In return for four and a half years of service, the USCG paid for his captain’s training through the Maritime Professional Training Academy. From 1986 to 1990 he worked as a USCG Quartermaster (Navigator) and Vessel Inspection Officer, specializing in navigation and ship handling or, as he puts it, “telling people on the ships where to go,” as well as ship inspections for drug enforcement operations. During this time he also received training in firefighting, first aid, and a certification from the Nautical Institute in London in a special form of vessel operation called “dynamic positioning” where computer programs are used to maintain a vessel’s position and heading.
“I was lucky the Coast Guard put me through all of my classes because they don’t do that as much nowadays,” Gunther said. “Today it’s easier for you to go to an academy for four years, start as a mariner, then progress through third mate, second mate, chief mate, and captain. It takes an average of ten years after you graduate to become a fully qualified captain.”
While most of his work with the USCG involved routine patrols in and out of harbors, there were also some adrenaline-producing at-sea rescues, particularly during and after tropical storms and hurricanes. Once, Gunther and his crew had to rescue a container ship off Cape Hatteras in a storm with winds of 110 to 120 miles per hour (95 to 105 knots) and 42 to 46 foot (12 to 14 meter) seas, all of which he calmly recalled as if it was just another day at the office.
After his stint with the Coast Guard, Gunther did what any other young man would do. He went on a cruise. Specifically, he worked as the Ship’s Master and Chief Officer of the 185-foot (56-meter) Mayan Princess for the American Canadian Caribbean Cruise Line, visiting ports of call in the Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Costa Rica, and Panama.
While on vacation from cruise ship duties, Gunther filled in as a captain for the research vessel (R/V) Edwin Link, a 168-foot (51-meter) ocean-going ship operated by the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) in Fort Piece, Florida. In 1993 he accepted a full-time position as the captain of this ship, later renamed the R/V Seward Johnson II, which was used to facilitate a variety of oceanographic studies and supported the use of submersibles and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).
In 2008, Gunther was part of a mission, funded by Tedd Waitt and the Waitt Institute for Discovery, to search for Amelia Earhart’s plane, the CATALYST 2, which he says remains one of the most interesting trips of his career. The five-month expedition in 2014 took Gunther and crew from the Pacific Coast of the United States on a 23-day transit to American Samoa in the South Pacific, which served as their base of operations. “It was an intense schedule,” he recalled. “We would go out to sea for 42 days, searching the water off Nikumaroro Island and Swains Island, then return to port for 7 days before heading out on another 42-day trip.”
After fifteen years in Florida, Gunther was ready for a new challenge and, later that same year, moved across the country to California to accept a job with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) as Relief Captain/Chief Officer of the 117-foot (35-meter) R/V Western Flyer, a twin-hulled vessel that serves as the platform of operations for the deep-diving ROV Doc Ricketts.
Before long, however, he would be revisiting an old friend from his past. In 2011, the captain of BIOS’s R/V Atlantic Explorer, or, as she used to be known, the R/V Seward Johnson II, vacated his position and Gunther stepped back to the helm full-time. After being with the vessel through three name changes, including all of the associated paperwork and legal documentation, Gunther jokingly told his new employers that he would not go through another name change again. He readily admits that, as with most captains, paperwork is his least favorite part of the job, particularly on a ship that transits between countries. True to their word, the ship has remained the R/V Atlantic Explorer ever since.
Since he’s been in Bermuda, Gunther has captained the ship on hundreds of research cruises, including routine research trips to the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study (BATS) and Hydrostation ‘S’ sites off the coast of Bermuda, annual BATS validation cruises to Puerto Rico, and numerous trips into the Sargasso Sea and North Atlantic Ocean for a variety of oceanographic projects conducted by BIOS scientists and their collaborators. In this time, he’s become somewhat of a television star, although he will be the last to call himself that. Gunther and the R/V Atlantic Explorer have been featured on two episodes of The Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” three episodes of BBC’s “Blue Planet,” and a recent PBS special entitled “The Fate of Carbon.”
He also continues to work as a relief captain for the R/V Western Flyer at MBARI for three months of the year when the full-time captain is on holiday. In August, Gunther piloted the vessel into the deep waters (over 3,000 feet, or 900 meters) off the coast of California for what MBARI scientists affectionately call “Octopus Week.” The scientists were there to study the breeding habits of a deep-water octopus species, which Gunther displays photos of on his phone like a proud father. It’s not hard to see that what he likes most about his job is traveling around the world and working with new people in each location.
This love of traveling has influenced his family life as well, and his self-described “fireman’s schedule” of one month on, one month off gives him the time and flexibility to visit new places. Earlier this year, Gunther and his wife of 30 years, Gail, spent January and February in Spain—first Mallorca, then Barcelona. Gunther was at the helm of the R/V Atlantic Explorer in March, then he and Gail spent the following month in Italy. Next year they are planning to return to Italy in January before touring the California coastline in their newly purchased Alfa See Ya RV (recreational vehicle). The 40-foot long (12-meter) vehicle has all the amenities of home; however, Gunther is quick to mention that his favorite mode of transportation is his motorcycle, which he gets to ride often while in California.
In Bermuda he can usually be found on the bridge of the R/V Atlantic Explorer overseeing up to 12 crew members and making sure things run smoothly while the ship is at dock and at sea. Rumor has it he makes a mean latte, too, courtesy of the Keurig machine in the ship’s galley. Gunther wisecracks, in a typical dry, New England fashion, that his therapist says he’s been around the ocean for too long. However, it’s clear that this is where he really belongs.