Walking up to the RRS James Cook as a newbie seafarer 3 weeks ago, I was firstly taken aback by the sheer enormity of it. Stretching 89.20m in length and 18.60m in width, it’s certainly an impressive sight. Being my first cruise, I excitedly strolled up the gangway eager to explore my new home for the next few weeks. I had not expected to be greeted with such a bright open dining area, carpeted floors, cinema, bar/entertainment area, sauna, gym and my own cabin! It was practically luxury aboard this reputed scientific research vessel. I felt that as a master’s student, I could not be luckier.
After boarding, my primary goal was to see (and touch) the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) ISIS. As a long-time deep-sea enthusiast, seeing the equipment that has been so involved in the front row of deep-sea science was a complete ‘fan-girl’ moment for me. Getting up close to the robotic arms, cameras and sampling equipment of this beautifully designed and complex instrument, was such a privilege.
In the weeks following, we were met with calm seas, playful dolphins, large pods of pilot whales, fulmars and stunning imagery of the deep-sea communities lining the seabed. My excitement only grew.
It turned out being placed on night shift for this cruise would work completely in my favour. Being so far north, the sky stayed light (on clear days), lasting till the early hours of the morning. I was able to witness both sunsets and sunrises, each equally breath-taking, and experience a stillness and quietness about the ship, only seen at night. An experience many of us miss during our hectic day-orientated lives. Very few people wandered the ship in the early hours, it was a peaceful and therapeutic experience.
My night shift would typically begin at 19:45 each day, ending at 07:45, just in time for a cooked breakfast, a welcome treat after such a long shift. The chefs of the James Cook definitely know how to feed you, ‘good and proper’. I feared I would need a crane to help me disembark after 3 weeks.
Although these night shifts were quite tiresome, the excitement of what ISIS was filming made it impossible to ever want to rush to bed. During each watch, my time spent in the ROV shack alongside the ISIS pilots, was by far the best part of my experience on board. The live footage of centuries-old corals and the paint splatter of colour across the seabed, caused by all manner of anemones and sponges in multiple shapes and sizes, left me repeatedly in awe. Observing the graceful chimaera’s that slip through the water column so elegantly was equally special, however a sighting of the rarer Rhinochimaera was a personal tick in the box for me.
ROV shack (♫baby, ROV shack♫) duties typically consisted of operating the science camera, searching around for our target species/interesting sights and relaying back to the rest of the scientific team who would be managing the logs of our video transects, sampling events and recordings. We chanced upon fields of Gorgonocephalus (a basket star), huge black corals housing numerous crustacea, sandy stretches full of sea cucumbers and urchins and fish sheltering in coral gardens.
The gasps of excitement from each of the scientists in that little shack were frequent occurrences. After all, at some sites we were the first humans to ever bear witness to these habitats. All of this, accompanied by a very diverse music collection put together by the ROV pilots made for a thrilling and often comical experience. An upbeat rave-style remix of “My heart will go on” by Celine Dion, was a personal comedic favourite of mine.
When not in the ROV shack my time was spent processing samples for genetic research to be led by the team from the University of Oxford. It was wonderful to get so familiar and up-close to the diverse fauna. Although the cameras have powerful zooming capabilities and provide high quality imagery, it cannot compare to personally handling a sample and looking up close. Archiving the images of collected specimens, and the navigation and CTD data was another important component of my duties on board.
Writing this blog, knowing my bag is packed to disembark at Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, I feel sad as my time on the James Cook has come to an end. But hearing the statisticss for our 1st leg has left the team feeling proud of how much we have accomplished in such a short period. We achieved an incredible 235 hours of ROV dive time, 31 hours of CTD and 55 hours of AUV deployment. The acoustic surveying was equally successful with 532 Linear km (Lkm) recorded by the vessel, 83 Lkm by the AUV multibeam, 89 Lkm by the AUV sidescan and 89 Lkm by the AUV sub-bottom profiler. I am so grateful to have been part of such a fantastic team and can only hope to have the opportunity to experience this again in the future.
p.s. Oh yeah, and I got to shrink a polystyrene gnome! Does life get any better?!
Text by Chloe Game, MRes student, Plymouth University