Last leg of ORCHESTRA cruise (Pt 5)… by Melanie Leng
Professor Melanie Leng is currently part taking in an expedition to the Southern Ocean as part of ORCHESTRA (Ocean Regulation of Climate by Heat and Carbon Sequestration and Transports), a NERC funded programme with partners at the British Antarctic Survey (lead), the National Oceanography Centre, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, and many more including British Geological Survey. Here she updates us as she nears the end of her expedition on the RRS James Clark Ross…
We have been at sea for around 3 weeks on the RRS James Clark Ross crossing the Drake Passage from the Burwood Bank (an undersea shallow ridge off eastern South America) to Elephant Island (off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula). All the work has been successfully completed. Personally I have collected over 600 water samples (with help from my overnight buddy, Julia Rulent from the Universities of Bangor and Liverpool) for oxygen and carbon isotope analysis, and around 250 for radiocarbon analysis. These samples are just one leg of the 5 year ORCHESTRA research programme to try to understand the structure of the Southern Ocean and more importantly what changes are taking place within the ocean because of human impact. These samples were taken from over 40 casts of the CTD (see blog part 4) from as deep at 5km in the ocean. On board others from NERC research institutes and UK universities are measuring salinity, temperature, nutrients, carbon, plastics, silicon and nitrogen isotopes, CFCs, and SF6. Many measurements have been made on board with instruments that the scientists have brought a long, the instruments strapped to benches in the ship’s laboratories, to stop them falling off as the ship rocks and rolls. In the 3 weeks on board I can’t remember a calm period, several hurricanes have passed over us bringing massive ocean swells and waves.
There has been a lot of work done, round the clock sampling in periods of relative stability, to make up for time lost due to the weather. The highs include 2 humpbacked whales (mother and calf) visiting us, the mother was enormous, perhaps 12-14m in length. The whales had a distinctive body shape, with long pectoral fins and a knobbly head, they repeatedly lifted their heads out of the water to take a look at the orange high visibility clothing clad scientists on deck, and did several back flips and tail whips. The whales were making their way south in the Southern Ocean to feed off krill and small fish, before returning to tropical waters to breed and give birth, where they live off their fat reserves built up in the south. In the past these amazing creatures have been a target for the whaling industry, and have been on the brink of extinction before protocols were put in place to limit whale fishing. The humpback whale population is increasing but still fishing gear, collisions with ships and noise pollution continue to impact the species.
One day we were also escorted for several hours by a pod of 30 or so pilot whales. It was a mixed group with several large animals of 6-8m, and many calves. The pilot whales frolicked in the waves, enjoying the speed that the currents afforded them, occasionally they stopped and peered at us, lifting their bulbous heads out of the water. With the pod were small clusters of penguins, visible as they surfed the waves on their hunt for small fish. Albatross and petrels follow the ship all the time, possibly for refuse or the small marine animals that are brought to the surface by the motion of the ship, or perhaps they are taking advantage of air currents produced by the ship…
In a few hours we will be docked at Stanley on the Falkland Islands, where we will spend a couple of days demobilising the ship, taking inventories of samples, packing up the equipment, and generally clearing up for the next cruise. The RSS James Clark Ross will be leaving Stanley in early December with a new group of scientists working on a project called ICEBERGS, they will be travelling along the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula, to see how rapidly retreating glaciers are changing the environment there. They will also be collecting gravity cores to put recent ice shelf retreat into historical (Holocene) context. You can follow them on: Instagram: developing oceans and twitter @ICEBERGS_JCR.
Overall its been a successful research cruise, in no small way down to Dr Yvonne Firing for her leadership and management. Also thanks to the dedicated crew on board, engineers, deck crew and stewards who all played their part.
I am tweeting @MelJLeng and @ORCHESTRAPROJ and Facebooking (Orchestra project) during this trip, a full list of blogs from the expedition are available from the drakepassageblog.worldpress.com page.
Melanie Leng is the Science Director for Geochemistry at the BGS and the BGS lead scientist for ORCHESTRA.
Crossing the Drake passage in a container by Felix Leung
It’s almost the end of the voyage on RRS James Clark Ross at the Drake Passage expedition, it’s about time for me to summarise what I have done and experienced on this amazing journey. I am part of the Transient Tracer Team (TTT) from University of Exeter that is lead by Dr Marie-Jose Messias. In addiiton to Marie-Jose we are a group of four: Gary, Gen, Jack and me. We divided ourselves into two shifts and I am fortunate to have the daytime shift from midday to midnight.
Our role is to collect sea water samples from different depths using the CTD (a rosette of 24 cylinders that is opened at different depth to collect around 20 litre of sea water per cylinder) and measure how much transient tracers such as CFC, SF6 are in the sea. CFC and SF6 are produced by humans, used as refrigerant and insulators. They don’t exist in nature and that’s why it is used like a tracer to see how the ocean currents travel around the world.
To measure the concentration of tracers in sea water we use a purpose-built gas chromatography system called the Barbarella (named after the fictional superheroine). When I first saw the instrument, I was overwhelmed with all the tubes, gas cylinders and valves that connected the sample and gas chromatography system. There are only around 5 instruments in the world that do this kind of measurement and it needs constant calibrations to make sure the measurements are accurate. To accommodate the instrument, which is of considerable size, we have it in a container and set up a lab out on deck.
Inside the container it feels small, it has computers, air conditioning, internet, telephone and (fortunately) windows. On a calm day, we could see many petrels and albatross following the ship. We also watched many beautiful sunsets and sunrises. On a rough day, working in the container proved challenging. The Drake passage is named after British explorer Francis Drake who discovered the strait in 1578. It is infamous for being the roughest seas in the world. Since its latitude is just ocean and without any large landmass, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) carries large volumes of water and keeps warm water away from Antarctica, the ACC also makes the sea very choppy especially at the Drake Passage which is the narrowest strait between Antarctica to South America, sailors call it the “Drake shake”.
Working in the container probably gave us the best experience of the “Drake Shake”. At the beginning I was excited to experience the rough sea but then I started to feel a little sick. Fortunately, we have a doctor onboard, and Dr Amber gave many of us motion sickness patches, which worked like magic!
We were told that the sea would get rough. Within a few hours of setting sail the crew locked the doors to the upper deck to prevent water entering the ship. Just outside the container the sea water is often at ankle height and sloshes about. The equipment in the container are all strapped securely, but it was quite scary at night when winds reached Beaufort 9. It felt like being on a roller coaster for much of the time, this makes simple tasks such as walking up the stairs, opening doors and pouring a glass of water difficult. However, we are not afraid of the sea, the ship is armed with an ice-strengthened hull and is under the command of an experienced captain and crew. With our current technology such as GPS and weather forecast, crossing the Drake passage is much less treacherous than the early days of James Clark Ross’s expedition to Antarctica in 1843.
Working in the container had its perks too. We were the first to see humpback whales, probably a mother and calf. It was my first-time seeing whales in the wild, and it was truly an emotional experience meeting one of the Earth’s largest animals. Since banning of whaling their numbers are recovering.
Overall, I have really enjoyed my time on this cruise JR18002, highlights include spotting a huge icebergs, the whales and seeing Elephant Island in the mist. I have learnt a lot from the people I have been with, and it feels great that I am part of an important mission to understand climate change and its impact to the ocean.
Dr Felix Leung is a post doctoral researcher at University of Exeter and Hong Kong.
Packing, Perils and Positives – how to survive your first (Drake Passage) cruise by Frankie Carr
Frankie Carr is currently taking part in the JR18002 research cruise in the Southern Ocean in conjunction with the ORCHESTRA project as part of the team investigating dissolved oxygen in the Drake passage. This is Frankie’s first research cruise, and here she tells us about her experience…
The turnaround from me knowing this cruise existed, and leaving home for the longest time I’ve ever been away, to go to the furthest place I’ve ever been from home in my life, was no longer than 6 weeks. In hindsight, this was probably for the best, as I didn’t really have time to get nervous about the trip – between my MPhil work and cramming in what is usually months of cruise preparation, I was kept relatively busy until the 28th October when I set off from Newcastle to embark upon my first research cruise! There is, understandably, a LOT of paperwork before one goes on a cruise – there are numerous medicals to pass, and jabs to get (destination-dependent, of course), and forms to fill in. Once this was all submitted, and I got the notification that my flights were booked, things started to feel far more real…!
As my departure date loomed, it was time to get packing. Despite my due diligence, and love of organisation (and lists), I have since managed to compile a whole host of things I wish I had packed (and things I wish I hadn’t!) whilst onboard. Primarily, I wish I had not taken the luggage allowance as a challenge rather than a limit. Lugging two large suitcases over 5,000 miles (and a similar number of stairs, it seemed) was impractical and caused my first cruise injury (I ran over my own foot…). Whilst people were glad I brought approximately 40 pairs of socks when we needed some to attach to the CTD, I overestimated how much I would care about matching socks at 23:30 when I woke up to begin my 12-hour night shift…! There are also certain things you just don’t realise you’ll need until you’re onboard, which will vary individually based on experience, but there are a few essentials: sun cream (I serve as a cautionary tale due to the intense burns I received in Stanley…!); an ethernet adapter for Macs; and an eye mask/ear plugs (ships are LOUD, and sleeping on them is challenging enough without doing it during daylight hours if you’re a night worker). I would also recommend taking seasickness tablets as a precaution, although in my experience I was very lucky not to feel nauseous at all and in fact the tablets made me feel worse!
At 15:24 on Sunday 28th October, I boarded the train from Newcastle to Oxford. This was to be the first leg of a long journey…! Upon arrival at Oxford station, I was ushered into a taxi with four strangers (who would later go on to be colleagues) to RAF Brize Norton. My first time on a military base was exciting enough to distract from the thousands of miles still to go, and it was here that we boarded the plane to the Falklands. The plane journey was not at all what I had expected, the plane itself was far more commercial in appearance and there were regular meals throughout out long journey (with a refuelling stop in the warm Cape Verde to drive home the coldness we were travelling to!). Upon arrival at Mount Pleasant in the Falklands, we took a coach to Stanley to a beautiful hotel which was to be our home for 2 nights. Surprisingly for me, homesickness had still not set in thus far, which may be because this hotel was nicer than my flat…
Whilst in Stanley, we had a couple of days to explore. This included a lot of ‘firsts’ for me and, again, seemed to create such an excitement surrounding the trip that I barely thought of home. We swam in the very cold (c. 6oC) seas at Surf Bay (aptly named due to its incredible waves), and hiked to Gypsy Cove where we got our first glimpse of penguins! Finally, on the evening of Halloween, it was time for us to board the ship. This was when the reality of what we were doing started to set in for me. The ship was markedly different from what had gone before, and was a bit of a shock to the system! The thought of sharing a cabin for three weeks certainly induced an element of trepidation, however this was soon dissipated by the introduction of my cabin mates, Maria and Morgan, who are both incredible (and now no doubt friends for life).
We were not due to set sail until Saturday 3rd November, therefore we had some time to get acclimatised to ship life. I’m not sure how the RRS James Clark Ross compares to other vessels, but to me this was positively labyrinthine! I would be convinced that I had learned where the bar, or the lab, or my cabin was, only to be stumped when a crew member showed me a different route! However ship life was incredibly fun – as we hadn’t begun science yet, once lab set up was complete we were able to get to know one another a lot better and there were MANY competitive card games…
As soon as we set sail, we attempted to get into our shift patterns. For night workers like myself, this was certainly a bit of a struggle which required a commitment to staying awake all night even without data to sample! The shifts were challenging as they meant a massive reduction in overlap and socialising – Morgan and I didn’t really see Maria for around two weeks – however, my lab group were incredibly supportive and positive to be around, which made eating ‘breakfast’ of leftover dinner items at 11pm slightly more palatable!
I was due to work in the oxygen team as a chemistry watchstander, relatively distantly removed from my usual work as a biologist. However, the other members of my team showed me the equipment and techniques and now I’d venture so far as to say I’m a dab hand in titrations! Working 12-hour shifts every day without fail was exhausting, but the work and company were so enjoyable that the hours flew by. I had my first experience of weather impacting scientific work when storms prevented us from deploying the CTD, yet the team worked hard to overcome this and successfully sample all stations. After a few days, I had also carved out a nice routine which revolved around a post-shift crossword with the rest of the night team!
As I write this, we have approximately two days of science remaining before we return to port in Stanley, and spend a few days there before the long journey home. My first cruise has certainly been tiring, but it has also been one of the most incredible experience of my life. I have seen penguins, an iceberg, Elephant Island, and humpback whales mere feet from the ship. I have learned new methods and practices, and met some amazing scientists. I have no doubt been lucky in many elements (my lack of seasickness, for one), however my overwhelming response is that I cannot wait to go on another scientific cruise!
Frankie is in the second and final year of her MPhil at Newcastle University, studying the community structure of amphipods in the Mariana Trench. She is currently researching and applying for PhDs to build on this, in particular looking at the processes that impact extreme environments such as the deep sea. Find Frankie on twitter @francesca_carr.
ORCHESTRA cruise JR18002 across the Drake Passage by Aimee Coggins
Aimee Coggins is currently taking part in an expedition across the Drake Passage as part of the ORCHESTRA (Ocean Regulation of Climate by Heat and Carbon Sequestration and Transport) Project. She is part of the team analysing water for its carbonate chemistry. This blog is about her trip and the team’s first glimpse of the land in the Antarctic Region…
We are currently slightly over mid-way through our journey and nearing the end of the stations we’re scheduled to sample across the Drake Passage. We have travelled over 600 miles from our starting destination in the Falklands and are beginning to make our way back.
When you’re busy analysing your samples—trying to keep up with the pace the are coming in—It’s easy to forget quite where you are, although you’re regularly reminded by loose items like note pads falling off the desk with the not so gentle sway of the ship. However, it’s when you take the time to look out the window or walk on deck that you’re truly reminded of your location by the sprawling ocean, the light sprinkling of snow and the petrels trailing the ship’s wake.
We run our samples 24 hours a day and I’m on the night shift which means I work 12-midnight to mid-day. Working at night has its perks but it’s often the case that seeing anything exciting like whales, ice-bergs and land means being woken-up in the day time.
A few day ago at about 20:00 (equivalent of the middle of the night for me) the phone rang in my cabin to let me know that after 11 days of a water filled horizons, land was finally visible! We were approaching an island of the tip the Antarctic Peninsula called Elephant Island, named so because of both its elephant head-like shape and because of sightings of elephant seals on its shore by early explorers. The island is most famous for providing refuge for Ernest Shackleton and his crew in 1916 after the loss of their ship The Endurance. Now the main discharge glacier on the island is named after the vessel in memory of their gruelling experience.
Despite the low visibility it was possible to see a craggy peak of Elephant Island rising through the mist. At this moment it’s difficult not to reflect on Shackleton experience. Visiting the Southern Ocean on the pursuit of understanding its dynamics and is capacity to buffer our world against climate change is an important task and the journey is still an adventure today. The weather conditions are extreme and the region remains isolated, however technology and the incoming of the Southern Ocean summer make it somewhat less treacherous.
In addition to the excitement of seeing land, the appearance of Elephant Island on the horizon indicates that we have reached our southernmost sampling station on the continental shelf and that we are at the point where we will be turning around to return home. On the way back we will be catching the stations we were unable to sample previously due to the extreme conditions that characterise Drake Passage and make the Southern Ocean such a unique place.
Aimee is a PhD Student at the University of Exeter. Her work focuses on understanding and resolving the contemporary Southern Ocean carbon sink.