I thought sunsets were orange, yellow at a push. I was wrong. Being at sea on night shift, I get to see the hundreds of shades of purples, reds, blues and greens revealed as the Sun scatters every colour across the glassy horizon of Rockall. That is how I start my day.
This far North, the waters are cold, the days are long and the weather…well that’s a whole other story! It is easy to forget we are a bubble, a floating, secluded bubble over a treasure trove of deep-sea discoveries, just waiting for us, thousands of metres below in the dark, icy depths of the North Atlantic.
Deploying millions of pounds worth of kit in these ever-changing seas is always a challenge, and not made easier with severe lack of internet cutting off weather forecasts. But with a lot of experienced crew on board who are always happy to help, data collection is well underway and proving extremely fruitful. Some may argue too fruitful! With deep-sea science an infamous nightmare for data, the science crew on board are bouncing up and down with excitement over what we are achieving.
The vast numbers of samples coming on board certainly requires 24 hours of solid work every day. Once one shift brings up the samples, the next shift spends the night in the 4°C cold room, preparing the specimens for every eventuality we can foresee – genetics in ethanol, morphology in formalin or frozen, and then to confuse things further, some in all 3! But all the hard work is paying off with the amazing diversity of life we are revealing in the harsh depths of the oceans, just take a look below!
The Most Wanted List:
So, what are we specifically targeting for our studies of population connectivity? Here is the wanted list (and the “JC136 Unofficial Naming System”):
From lasers to labs…
“How do you coordinate such a monstrous sampling effort”, I am sure I hear you cry… The three P’s are vital– that’s Planning, Preparation and more Preparation. Coarse resolution maps of the seabed show where there are slopes, and larger scale structures, such as seamounts and ridges. The PI (Principle Investigator) can then choose video and sampling transects that are most likely to reveal our target species. Predictive models have been made by our onsite “ deep-sea fortune tellers” Howell, Piechaud, Ross and Foster over recent years. Using information on what we already know about the types of environments the species like to live in, we can work out where we are likely to find them in unstudied waters, saving time and money! Higher resolution data is then collected using the ships multibeam systems and also AUTOSUB. An autonomous underwater vehicle, AUTOSUB maps the seabed and takes video without being tethered to the ship. This allows us to go faster during transit to the next sample site (as the boat’s speed is restricted during multibeam), and also means we can be preparing the bathymetry data for the next dive whilst still being on the first. Efficient!
To physically collect the samples and videos, we run transects along the seabed using the NERC ISIS ROV. Its crew of highly skilled pilots manoeuvre the ROV using the high-resolution seabed maps, created from the multibeam data, and collect specimens using the two manipulator arms and the infamous Slurp Gun (just take a look at our videos on Twitter and Facebook if you fancy a giggle). From lasers to labs, the whole process takes about 36 hours for each dive to complete and process, and once that’s over…we start all over again!
But when we look back at the diversity of life we have already sampled on just this part of the first leg, it is easy to see why deep-sea biologists continuously work to push the boundaries of science into the perilous depths of the oceans. Bringing what is out of sight and out of mind to the surface for all to see makes every long day, every bout of sea sickness and every square-eyed second worth it, and long may we continue to find many more treasures of the deep…
Text by Amber Cobley, Southampton University