This cruise has begun with a leisurely start, a four day transit to our study area means that we have time to:
Set the equipment up, run through safety and sampling protocols,
enjoy flat calm seas, beautiful sunsets, and a spot of dolphin watching.
The problem is that this plain sailing can lull everyone into a false sense of security: you can almost guarantee that things won’t go to plan!
Deep-sea science is plagued with problems to overcome. Our sampling areas are far from shore, requiring big expensive research cruises to reach them. The equipment we use to sample the oceanography and biology has to be waterproof, coldproof, and pressure-proof. At our maximum sample depth on this trip (roughly 2000 m), the water will be 2-3°C and there will be over 1270 kg of force exerted on every square inch of surface area! Indeed, at around this depth if you shoot a hole in a pressurized scuba tank, instead of air rushing out, water rushes in (a fact stolen straight from xkcd’s lakes and oceans infographic which you should definitely check out for a sense of the scale of depth we are talking about)!
As a result of all these hurdles, it is inevitable that we will fall down somewhere! Most commonly this will be the result of weather (photos from a past cruise…fingers crossed we skip all this in the next few weeks!).
Rain is not a problem to work through, we are kitted out for that, but when the wind picks up and the waves are growing and a-rolling, we can run into conditions where it is unsafe to launch or recover equipment. In very bad weather conditions the ship needs to concentrate on staying afloat, and the scientists and crew have to contend with some interesting pitching and rolling, which can be problematic to do anything in, including keeping your dinner down! Weather usually means it is time for some drastic decision-making – do we stay and wait it out? Should we try sampling elsewhere and return to this location when it dies down? Do we have to abandon this sampling site altogether? All of this has to be weighed against costs and safety and is done with the input of the master (captain).
The next issue you can run into is the technical hitch. With water and electrics and considerable distance from land, many things can go wrong with the sampling equipment, the communications equipment, and even shipboard functioning. This can all compound into unfortunate events, as the ROV ISIS mark I discovered. We can confirm we have a healthy looking ISIS mark II aboard, and fingers crossed we still will upon our return to Southampton at the end of leg two (ISIS is our most important piece of biology equipment – something we shall tell you more about in a subsequent blog).
Equipment problems can also result in sampling equipment being deployed and never being recovered – given the expense of the equipment involved we do everything in our power to make sure this doesn’t happen but you cannot account for everything, so again please cross those fingers for us!
Unfortunately, we have already encountered our first technical hitch this cruise – the main satellite link is down, affecting our internet connection and our communication with you! We have a couple of contingency plans in place: piping tweets through a text emailer and using WhatsApp for most of our communications as it is not so data heavy. Hopefully, we will still be in touch throughout the cruise, but apologies if we go dark now and then, at least you now know why!
A lot of planning goes into these research cruises, we have time factored in for bad weather, backup equipment should our main piece fail, and teams of clever and competent technicians, engineers, crew, and scientists all ready to leap in and help where they can. In spite of all this, everyone on board knows that deep-sea science rarely goes to plan! You may now consider yourself duly warned, but with (a lot of) luck we shall be the exception that proves the rule.
Text by Rebecca Ross, Plymouth University