The Gilbert R. Mason research vessel: Honoring a civil rights hero

By Chris Parsons

A U.S. National Science Foundation ocean research vessel under construction will be named R/V Gilbert R. Mason in honor of the education and civil rights legacy of the famous activist and his family. Gilbert R. Mason Sr. was a lifelong champion of the ocean and was well known for advocating for equal access to beaches in coastal Mississippi and for pioneering leadership of nonviolent civil disobedience in the Deep South. His son, Gilbert R. Mason Jr., was also involved in the civil rights movement.

Civil Rights historical marker
Credit: Shutterstock/EQRoy
View of the landmark Biloxi beach on the Mississippi Sound off the Gulf of Mexico in Harrison County, Mississippi. It was the site of the Civil Rights Biloxi wade-ins.

In 1959, Mason Sr. organized one of the first nonviolent protests in Mississippi -- advocating for desegregation of beaches in a series of three wade-ins. He dedicated the rest of his life to advocating for equal access to education, health care and the beach and sea.

"The ship's name embodies the aspiration for societally relevant science to be carried out on the ship and our lasting commitment to creating access to marine science to all who seek to enter the field or benefit from our work," said Leila Hamdan, associate director for the University of Southern Mississippi's School of Ocean Science and Engineering. "For me, this is not just the name of the ship -- it is our true north."

The ship's motto, "aequa mari," (Latin for "equal access to the sea") pays homage to Mason Sr.'s life's work and legacy and to the Masons' home state of Mississippi, which is one of the two home ports for the vessel, which historically has been a major access route from the U.S. interior to the ocean.

The ship will be completed in 2024 and will conduct geological, oceanographic and marine biological research in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean. The vessel will be 199 feet long by 41 feet wide and capable of taking a crew of 13 and up to 16 scientists to sea for three weeks, traveling up to 5,400 nautical miles.

The R/V Gilbert R. Mason will carry on-board laboratories and sensors for mapping the seafloor. The vessel will also be equipped with advanced telepresence capabilities that enable land-based scientists to engage in projects with researchers on board and provide opportunities for the public, including students, to experience life on board a research ship.

Leila Hamdan explains how researchers would use the model to plan scientific expeditions.

The vessel will be managed by the Gulf-Caribbean Oceanographic Consortium, which is led by the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and the University of Southern Mississippi, where members of the Mason family have taught and participated in marine education programs through USM's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.

Only three dedicated ocean research vessels in the U.S. have been named after people of color: NSF's new vessel R/V Gilbert R. Mason; the U.S. Coast Guard's icebreaker Healy, named after Capt. Michael A. Healy, the first Black officer to command a U.S. government vessel; and the U.S. Navy's oceanographic survey vessel USNS Henson, named for Arctic explorer Matthew Henson.

Terrence Quinn, NSF's Division Director of Ocean Sciences added, "Commemorating Dr. Mason's life and achievements will be a good reminder that this NSF-owned research vessel will not only open the waters to further discovery but will also open opportunities for a wide range of researchers."

About the Author

Chris Parsons undersea profile
Chris Parsons
AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, Division of Ocean Sciences

Chris Parsons has been a marine mammal and marine conservation researcher for nearly three decades, and he’s been involved in projects on every continent, including Antarctica. He’s currently a 2020-2021 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow hosted in the Office of the Director of the Division of Ocean Sciences and works on ocean science communication and policy. Prior to this Fellowship, he was the Creative & Scientific Content Director for Speak Up For Blue productions – one of the biggest independent nature podcasting companies globally, for whom he hosted and produced several marine science and environmental podcasts. Before that, he was an Associate Professor in the Dept. of Environmental Science & Policy at George Mason University as well as the Director of their undergraduate program in environmental science. In addition to writing a textbook on marine mammal biology & conservation, Chris has published over 180 scientific articles and book chapters on whales and dolphins and conservation. However, the podcast (Dugongs & Seadragons) and four books he has worked on that combine marine science and the roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons are probably his favorite projects. His claim to fame is that science fiction writer Douglas Adams gave him his old typewriter on which he wrote The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.