Monday, 17 June 2013

16 - The Scoop on Poop

The amphipod Themisto compressa
seen under the microscope.
Our group of three scientists (myself, Christina Thiele, and Rebekah Newstead) are here on-board the RRS James Cook  to collect information on the community structure of mesozooplankton (zooplankton in between 0.2- 2 mm) from the surface through the twilight zone to 1000m. We are also interested in how zooplankton may be influencing the transport of carbon through the twilight zone and into the deep sea where it can stay for thousands of years.

Faecel pellets produced by Themisto sp.
Image credit© Staphanie Wilson
One of the ways that zooplankton can influence this is by feeding on smaller plankton and marine snow and packaging them into faecal pellets which can sink faster than the smaller particles. Yes, pretty much every animal in the ocean poops, and zooplankton produce a lot of poop! Zooplankton also come in many shapes and sizes and so does their poop. Understanding how these characteristics differ from region to region can help us learn more about carbon flux and transformations of marine snow throughout the oceans.

The pelagic harpacticoid copepod Microsotella  sp.
seen under the microscope.
Species such as salps produce really big pellets which sink close to 1000 m per day. Large amphipods, currently common at the Twilight station also produce large, quickly sinking pellets. Some other taxonomic groups produce tiny pellets which may degrade before they sink too far. For example harpacticoid copepods (an order of copepods) most of which are benthic. But when found living in the water column like the genus Microsotella  sp., they colonise particles such as, you guessed it, poop.

Another one of our tasks was to measure rates of faecal pellet production by some of the dominant mesozooplankton in the region. We are specifically looking at the larger species that will be producing faecal pellets which may be transported out of the surface waters. This can be done by either passive sinking of large pellets or a more active transport during a zooplankton’s daily migration from the surface at night (where they feed) to the deeper and darker twilight zone at dawn (where they stay until dusk to avoid visual predators). On their way, they produce faecal pellets.

The amphipod Themisto  caught
in a "poop trap" jar.
Image credit© Staphanie Wilson
These pellets have within them the remnants of past meals and are an important mechanism for the transport of carbon to the deep sea. The three groups we chose to look at here on the cruise were salps, the large amphipod Themisto, and the daily migrating copepod Pleuromamma. We collect them, put them in special “poop trap” jars that will separate out the poop (because they like to eat the poop too), and count how many pellets they produce per hour.

By looking at the community structure as well as the faecal pellet production rate we can calculate potential carbon fluxes for some of the zooplankton species. Then we can compare these rates to what we find in the sediment traps and see which species are contributing the most to carbon transport through the twilight zone. This part of our project will be highly collaborative as we all share our data to create an interesting story about poop and marine snow in the twilight zone.

By Stephanie Wilson

Sunday, 16 June 2013

15 - Imaging twilight critters

Imaging the plankton

The traditional way to collect the small, drifting animals in the sea that are called zooplankton is to use plankton nets, and then analyze the tiny organisms under microscopes in the lab. That way you get a close-up view of the plankton, you can watch their movements (unless you preserve them at once!) and observe them from all sides. This makes it easy to determine the species of these animals, which range in size from less than a millimeter to a few centimeters. Unfortunately, many of the fragile forms are destroyed in the sampling process, and exist only as fragments in your sample.

The Video Plankton Recorder (VPR)
coming back from the ocean’s depth.
Image credit© Fredrika Norrbin
The Video Plankton Recorder (VPR) is a complimentary tool to the plankton nets and marine snow collecting systems used during this cruise. It is an underwater digital video camera with a macro lens and a flashing strobe for illumination, which is lowered into the water and towed up and down several times. It takes about 20 little pictures per second, and can be towed at a speed of a meter per second or more. The VPR lets you observe images of undisturbed, living plankton and particles (“marine snow”) in the water column and knowing exactly at what depth and temperature individual plankton are observed.

Here are some images of plankton collected with the VPR during this cruise.

Photo credit© Fredrika Norrbin

Appendicularians have a spinal cord, which make them our closest relatives among the invertebrates. They look a little like tadpole larvae, and are therefore sometimes called Larvaceans. Appendicularians build their own intricate “houses” with feeding nets to collect the smallest particles in the sea. However, these animals only live in their houses for a few hours before leaving them and building another. The discarded houses collapse and form a large part of the marine snow.

Photo credit© Fredrika Norrbin

are closely related to appendicularians, and are also producers of marine snow, but in this case it’s not in the form of houses but poo – scientifically named “faecalpellets”.

Photo credit© Fredrika Norrbin
Copepods are one of the most abundant and wide spread animals groups in the ocean and also some of the most numerous animals on Earth. You can find them everywhere, eating phytoplankton, other copepods and even marine snow! Their poo is also a part of the marine snow.

Photo credit© Fredrika Norrbin
Siphonophores are strange kinds of jellyfish. living in colonies where each individual has its specialized job. Some have tentacles to catch and sedate prey, others digest it, and others again help the whole colony swim and float. You may have heard of the infamous siphonophore “Portugese man-of-war” - but most are quite harmless to humans.

By Fredrika Norrbin

Deploying the VPR at sunset. Image credit© Chris Lindemann

14 - On marine snow and copepod poo (#Planktonpoo)

Powering up now for the #Planktonpoo Twitterfest on Monday (1200h GMT) with a great team on board the RRS James Cook  to respond. This will be Morten Iversen from Bremen with insights into particle degradation, Stephanie Wilson from Bangor working on plankton faecal characterisation and me from NOC, Southampton who has expertise in particle sinking. On shore there will also be a team of experts eager to communicate their work, so I think this should be a really good event. We have in fact finished the research programme at sea and are now steaming back towards Glasgow, where we started off just over two weeks ago. By Monday we will be within sight of land after some highly successful observations and experiments.

A “typical” marine snow aggregate collected by the Marine Snow catcher showing how it is a mixture of different types of material scavenged as the particle sank. Copyright© Richard Lampitt.

As we have reported before, this expedition has been over the Porcupine Abyssal Plain which lies around 350 miles southwest of Ireland (water depth 4800m), an area we like to think of as “typical” of the open ocean between the icy polar regions and the tropics. There is still a load of work to do, analysing the samples we have collected and processing the mass of data already in the bag, much of it to do with particles in the ocean, both dead and alive. But without a doubt there will be some really important things to say over the coming months when the processing has be done and the dots between the different studies conducted, have been connected.

An image taken by Morten earlier in the week from one of his “Gel traps”, a really neat way to collect sinking particles but without them ending up as a homogeneous mush at the bottom of the collecting cup. Copyright© Morten Iversen.
So what do we actually mean by “Plankton poo”? Well, this faecal matter is just one of several types of particle which sink under their own weight and thus transport carbon from the upper parts of the ocean down thought the twilight zone into the ocean's interior. But it is not only the poo of small planktonic animals that sink to the deep ocean. A more general term for such sinking particles is Marine Snow. It describes aggregations of all sorts of dead organic material and includes not only faecal material (plankton poo) but also aggregations of dead phytoplankton cells (microscopic plants), dead zooplankton, plankton moults and some inorganic minerals scavenged for good measure. Stuck together with a gluey matrix they can sink at rates between 100 and 1000m per day. On their way down they sometimes get caught and eaten by zooplankton before they arrive at the bottom of the ocean where they provide nourishment for other animals living on the seafloor.

By Richard Lampitt (Chief Scientist on James Cook cruise “Down to the Twilight Zone”)

See the latest #Planktonpoo tweets!

Saturday, 15 June 2013

13 - The Galley

Head chef Peter Lynch preparing
fish and chips
(galley is the English word for a kitchen on a ship)

Around fifty hungry mouths have to be fed three times a day, seven days a week on the RRS James Cook. So Peter Lynch, the head chief and his four man crew have to work from 6 o'clock in the morning to 7 o'clock at night to keep the crew, technicians and scientists happy.

As you can imagine, different from a kitchen on land this one has to be equipped for rough weather at sea. To keep the galley functional in a storm the hobs have big bars on them to prevent pans falling off, and cloths and gripping mats prevent food from rolling about.

Lunch is served
For breakfast there is of course, Full English Breakfast; bacon & eggs, sausages, grilled tomatoes, hash browns, black pudding (aka blood sausage) and toast. In case you are looking for something a bit more 'continental', croissants and fruits as well as cereals are also available. For lunch and dinner, a diversity of international and classical English dishes is served. For example yesterday we had Yorkshire Pudding. For all you non-British readers, this has nothing to do with a sweet pudding, but rather resembles a savoury muffin-lookalike croissant type of bun which is served with gravy, quite tasty though. For dinner, desert is available as well.

Beef & vegi: Fresh and frozen food is stored
in room-sized walk-in freezers/fridges
As on all research vessels the time for eating is kept fairly short for practical reasons, so you better be on time to enjoy your meal. Since people are working 24/7 on the ship it is sometimes impossible to make it to breakfast, lunch or dinner. In this case the galley staff are happy to put a dish aside for you. And in case you get hungry in between meals there are always leftovers from the previous meals (and a microwave to heat it) as well as toast and fruits available.

This cruise only lasts for three weeks, so we are lucky to be served fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the whole expedition. For longer ones though, you would be able to see the suggestion of durability of food. Even though vegetables are kept in room-size fridges (see picture) after approximately four weeks they reach their limit of durability, while other and fresh food like cabbage last a bit longer. The meat is stored in walk-in freezers (at -20C) so that it can be available even throughout longer journeys.

Friday, 14 June 2013

12 - Listening for whales

A whale, most likely a finwhale, passing by the RRS James Cook
The spout of a whale is one of the iconic images of the open sea, and it is one we have been lucky enough to see several times on this cruise. Such a sight is fleeting, however. The majority of a whale’s life is spent below the surface, with sperm whales known to dive as deep as 3km down into the ocean.

This makes it very difficult to do something as seemingly simple as to count how many whales there are in the sea. Given the vast expanses of the ocean, covering over two thirds of the Earth, even when they do surface it is very unlikely a ship will be there to see them and take note. So, if we want to study whales, we need a way to see underwater.

Two whales, one showing a flipper
Unfortunately, sunlight penetrates only a very short distance through water. However, sound can travel great distances. This is how whales themselves communicate, so maybe the thing to do is simply to listen in. To do this, the boffins at the Sea Mammal Research Unit of the University of St Andrews have been developing very sensitive underwater listening devices, called hydrophones. The ocean is a surprisingly noisy place though. Our current home, RRS James Cook, itself provides a constant background of engine noise that makes listening for distant whales like trying to hear a conversation in a crowded room. What is needed is a quiet place to put the hydrophone to eavesdrop on the whales. Cue Pelagra, the floating sediment traps we have been using to collect and study marine snow. These may provide an ideal platform. They hover silently on their own, hundreds of metres down in the water, away from waves and boats.

SMRU have very kindly lent us one of their detectors which, even now, is strapped to the side of Pelagra P8, heading westwards in an orderly manner, 200m below the surface. Tomorrow morning, P8 is due to pop up and be collected. Hopefully, we will then be lucky enough to hear whale sounds as well as see them.

By Adrian Martin

P.S.: The PELAGRA P8 has been recovered successfully this morning at around 06:00. And we were fortunate enough to find a short recording of a whale calling. (Opens new window - please close to return to this page)

11 - Sun and Sea

At sea sometimes water and sun can deliver quite spectacular scenery!

So here are just some impressions of the elements surrounding us.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

10 - Small plants in the ocean

Gayatri working her magic
Small plants in the ocean known as ‘phytoplankton’ are the primary producers in the food chain of the ocean. They are almost invisible to the naked eye (find out why these marine plants are so small).

More than two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is covered by Oceans, and there are huge quantities of these tiny plants. Large enough in fact to make up approximately half of the global biosphere production!

Being the primary elements of the food chain they affect the abundance and diversity of marine organisms throughout the food-chain and play a major role in marine ecosystem functioning and fishery yields. Since they are plants they take up carbon dioxide, and hence, they are a major sink for the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Considering their importance to the carbon cycle, it is vitally important and indeed our duty, to study them. That means we need to estimate their quantity and presence in the different regions of the ocean. To do so we have to ask some big questions. For example how does their concentration vary throughout the water column? How does their size vary with depth and geographic location? Which species dominate with the seasons of the year and on decadal timescales?

To answer these questions we need a better understanding of the different factors that affect phytoplankton, how are marine organisms affected by human activities and in turn how do they influence our own environment. Confused? These are not trivial questions, even for scientists.

On this cruise I am trying to answer a few of these questions in relation to the PAP site. For example, how many of these plants are present in these waters? How does their quantity and size vary as we enter the Twilight Zone? Now, I know you may wonder how we measure plants not even visible to the naked eye. Well, here's the simple answer; every plant on Earth contains the pigment 'chlorophyll a.'

The deployment of the CTD
Once we recover water samples from the Twilight Zone using the CTD Rosette (image right), we use an optical instrument that bombards the chlorophyll with a particular wavelength to make it fluoresce or glow, and the amount of fluorescence is a direct proxy of the amount of chlorophyll, and therefore phytoplankton the seawater contains.

Once that is done, we can move to answering some of the more complex questions.

By Gayatri Dudeja, PhD Student, NOC

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

9 - IT at Sea

Mark Maltby
Mark Maltby, what is your background and what is your job on-board the RRS James Cook?

I have a degree in astro-physics and have worked as a commercial pilot in the past. Before working at NOC, I was employed by the British Antarctic Survey where I was stationed at the British Antarctic Station HALLEY for over two years, working as a Electronics Engineer. Now I am what is called a Sea Systems Technician, taking care of all the scientific equipment that is permanently fitted to the ship itself. This includes mainly the acoustic gear, GPS's and the IT.

Could you specify that a bit?

IT setup in the main lab monitoring scientific ship data
For the acoustics its mainly collecting and processing of all the data from the different equipment like ADCP and SWATH (bathymetric profiling equipment), as well as handling the meteorological data. The IT part concerns mostly everything related to computers on the ship, system administration and programing as well as hardware issues. Though, it not only concerns the computers on-board, but also the telephone setup.

On day-to-day basis, what do you spend most of your time on?

We are at sea for 90 to 120 days per year, were we have 12 hours working days. During this time the management of the system takes up a lot of the time, as well as making sure that the specific demands for a particular cruise are met. Every cruise is different from the next not only with regard to the scientists on-board, but also the scientific focus of each expedition. Therefore the requirements change and specific settings have to be adapted. This is one of the more demanding tasks, but it is also what keeps this job so interesting.

Concerning your work, what is the main difference between on land and on sea?

A lot of the purely computational matters are quite similar to the ones on land. The most striking difference is probably the internet connection. Since there is no mobile phone net out here (and obviously no wire connection), we rely on satellite connections which are very costly. Therefore we only have a 256 kb/sec. bandwidth, which is shared by all users on-board. To give you an idea, your common 3G mobile phone is four times as fast. Considering that we are around fifty people on-board the RRS James Cook the experienced connection speed is roughly one two-hundredths of what your modern smart phone can do. This restriction sometimes leads to situations were diplomatic skills are required, since not all people respond equally well to the restrictions it imposes.

What do you do when you have equipment failure ?

Obviously we can't go to the nearest computer store! We carry duplicates of most of our hardware, so that we are able to replace for example computers. But with some of the larger equipment, like the ADCP transponder we are sometimes not able to do anything and have to wait until we reach the next port.

Are you interested in some of the science conducted here on-board? What science do you find most interesting?

Coming from a physical background, I am most interested in the research related to physical oceanography or meteorological, especially the more technical aspects.

Monday, 10 June 2013

8 - Life’s limits

A fin whale at PAP
Image courtesy of and ©
Sophie Wilmes

This phytoplankton is a dinoflagellate
belonging to the genus "Ceratium"

Diatoms of the genus "Rhizosolenia"
both the above photos are from today's samples
Compared to life on land, life in the sea is remarkable in two ways. Big and small. The largest of the sea's creatures, the huge whales often seen at PAP, are many times greater in size than the largest land animals, such as elephants and rhinos. Even winding the clock back to the dinosaurs, the really big ones like the brontosaurus, are mostly just neck and tail compared to a blue whale. For plants, however, the reverse is true. Whereas on land we are familiar with trees towering over us, in the open ocean almost all of the plants are so small as to be invisible to the naked eye. If the same were true on land, even if an elephant was the size of a blue whale, the tallest tree would be smaller than a grain of sand.

Though I will probably be thrown overboard for saying so, the reason for this huge difference between life on land and in the sea is not to be found in biology but in physics. A blue whale cannot survive on land because it cannot support its own weight. It would crush itself to death. The reason we find it so difficult to climb mountains is not just because they are high or because we're unfit but because we are so much heavier than the air we are painfully trying to move through to the top. The fact that we, like most animals, are predominantly made of water is the reason we float so easily. (That's what I tell myself while I'm on the boat anyway.) We are surrounded and supported by a substance that weighs much the same as we do. Distracted from scanning the waves for errant Pelagras earlier this week, I watched the massive bulk of a couple of large whales that surfaced, blowing, and slowly rolled back under. It was easy to forget that they are effectively weightless in the sea, like an astronaut on a spacewalk.

The reason why the plants of the ocean are so small is also 'physics'. Water absorbs the light that plants need to grow. It may be nice and sunny near the surface but move 100m downwards into the ocean and it is all but pitch black. The sea at PAP is almost 5km deep, so putting down roots on the seafloor and growing up to the light is clearly out of the question. Hence, plants in the ocean have adapted to float near the surface. This is the origin of the word "plankton" that is used to describe them. Unlike animals, however, plants are not very good at movement. So, even though they may only weigh a minute amount more than the water surrounding them, they will still inevitably sink because of this. They can’t swim back to the surface. The rate at which they sink depends on their size, however. The bigger they are, the quicker they sink so there is a major advantage in being small.

There is another advantage too. Plants need nutrients, something familiar to anyone who has tried to grow vegetables. In the ocean the nutrients are dissolved in the water but are often at very low concentrations. To compete for this rare food supply a plant needs to very good at absorbing nu
trients from the surrounding water, so needing as large a surface as possible. It also needs to keep its size, or volume, as small as possible, as this controls how much nutrient it needs to live. This key ratio, of surface area to volume, increases as the plant gets smaller and so oceanic plants’ microscopic size partly reflects the nutrient poor environment they exist in.

So, hopefully I’ve convinced you that physics can tell us much about life in the ocean. Which is handy, because I’m not a biologist.

By Adrian Martin

Saturday, 8 June 2013

7 - "Under Pressure"

We were on the move to Station PAP. The equipment had been stowed, everything was tied down and we all were eagerly anticipating getting to work soon. But we weren’t quite there yet!

We recently had a meeting to discuss what depths we all wanted to collect water and it was decided that we should collect from 100 metres above the bottom to the surface. We do this using an essential piece of equipment, the CTD. The CTD, or Conductivity, Temperature, Depth rosette, is used to measure oceanographic parameters and contains large bottles called Niskins to collect water for marine scientists to use in experiments. A CTD can be sent down as deep as needed so long as there’s enough wire. The seafloor at PAP is 4800 metres deep. We would sample water all the way to 4700 metres.

Painting cups!
Image© Stephanie Wilson
A traditional memento of any cruise to the deep-sea, plus a fun lesson in physics, is to decorate a Styrofoam cup and send it down attached to the CTD. At sea level, air pressure is 14.7 pounds per square inch (psi) and increases with depth in the ocean. At 4700 metres, water pressure is at about 2108 psi. Think of what would happen if an elephant sat on the cup. Now imagine that weight pressing into the cup from all sides! There is a lot of air within Styrofoam, as ocean pressure increases with depth, the air compresses and the cups look like they have shrunk. The deeper the CTD travels, the higher the pressure. Cups at 1000 metres would not be quite as compressed as cups coming from 4000 metres.

Before and after
I had brought along some Styrofoam cups as well as many different coloured permanent marker pens. We had already been given permission from the Chief Scientist to attach a basket to the CTD to perform the experiment and so we mentioned it to the other scientists as well. Many in the science party also saved their previously used cups from earlier meals and we had a decoration party in the library the night before we were to arrive at station. Some commemorated the occasion in words such as “4700m, Station PAP, June 2013, etc..” others drew exotic deep sea creatures, the animals or plants they were there to study, the PAP station logo.. so many creative designs!

The orginal cups.
Bottom are the same cups after
having been sent to 4700 m depth
Image© Stephanie Wilson
All the cups were sent down. At attachment they were nine centimetres high. The intense pressure at 4700 metres had compressed them to four centimetres! Also not all cups are made the same so the sturdier and larger cups that I had brought did not compress quite as tightly and therefore weren’t as small. Not everything compresses equally either, some cups came back flattened, others came back stuck together and had to be cut out. On previous cruises with CTD casts to 1000 metres, cups would come up only partially compressed. Why? Perhaps it is the inconsistencies in the making of Styrofoam or maybe the cup was pressed against or stuck inside another one during its journey.

In the end, everyone who participated got one or two cool souvenirs to take back home.. and a whole lot more respect for the intense pressure of the deep.

By Stephanie Wilson

Friday, 7 June 2013

6 - Catching the Ocean’s Snow!

Although it may seem odd, snow actually occurs a lot in the ocean! Not only do inputs from the atmosphere, like dust, sink down through the water column but so do many other particles from marine life in the surface ocean. Tiny marine plants grow using sunlight and these are grazed upon by small animals called zooplankton. Zooplankton often has the feeding behavior similar to that of a little child; a lot of it ends up “around” the mouth. Planktologists refer to it as “sloppy feeding”. This growing and grazing creates a lot of particles in the upper ocean, as does the zooplankton faecal pellets (aka poo) – which surprisingly is probably one of the most well measured things on this research cruise!

Marine Snow catcher
Some of particles are simply mixed in the surface of the ocean and reused, whilst others sink out of the surface layer and can start to form what we call marine snow. As the particles sink slowly, they can bump into other particles and become larger, or equally be broken apart. Not only this, but they are also being fed upon by other marine organisms, such as bacteria, who seem to have a taste for snow and zooplankton poo! The amount of material sinking out of the upper ocean and how this varies with depth is of particular interest because it is a way of pumping carbon from the atmosphere to the marine sediments where it is buried. This biological pump is a key part of the Earth’s carbon cycle, and its strength influences how much carbon dioxide there is in the atmosphere. But what particles are being removed via this biological pump, how much is sinking and does this change with depth, location or time of year? Well that’s exactly where the marine snow catcher comes in!

Anna at work
We’re using the marine snow catcher (MSC) like a giant water bottle - a 100 Litre water bottle no less – to do exactly what its name implies, catch marine snow. We can send the MSC down to different depths and bring back up a sample of water containing particles. It’s then possible to collect the particles that sink to the bottom of the MSC and conduct experiments on them to determine how fast they are sinking and how much carbon they contain. This information is useful when trying to calculate the "flux" or movement of material leaving the surface ocean. We can also measure different properties of the water in the MSC which has smaller particles suspended in it. By trying to ‘catch’ water and particles at different depths and times, and measuring a range of their properties, we can start to build up a picture of how the magnitude and composition of marine snow (and other sinking particles like zooplankton faecal pellets) varies in the ocean.

Marine snow size
(image of marine snow© Anna Belcher)
So, hopefully we will catch plenty of marine snow during this cruise and add one more piece to the puzzle of how carbon is transferred out of the surface ocean (exported) and help improve predictions of how this export might change with a changing climate.

Written by Anna Belcher

Thursday, 6 June 2013

5 - Being "whale watched"!

Our work on this expedition focuses on particles and living organisms normally not larger than a few millimetres. But sometimes animals larger than us, our closest relatives in the ocean, also make their appearance. It is not uncommon to spot dolphins and smaller whales, or should we say it is not uncommon to be spotted by them?

A couple of days ago we were visited by a curious group (or pod) of pilot whales (Globicephala sp.), who came by to see what was happening. Despite the name, they actually belong to the dolphin family and can reach up to several metres in length.

To investigate what is happening above the surface, they can hold their position and stick their head out of the water, a behaviour called "spyhopping" (first picture). Wouldn't you look out of the window when you see an unusually big and strange looking vehicle rolling down the road in your neighbourhood?

4 - Interview with the Captain

Captain John Leask, how long have you been working on ships, for how long as a captain and for how many years have you been captain of the RRS James Cook?

I first started as an Officer in September 1987. Since then I have been working on different types of ships. In August 2010 I became Captain on the old RRS Discovery  and since September 2011 on-board the RRS James Cook.

What do you like most about “your” ship?

The RRS James Cook  is a new and capable ship (built in 2006). The size and design of the ship allows her to be a very stable working platform. This is of great advantage not only to the scientists, but it also makes the work for the crew much easier and safer. The RRS James Cook  is a twin screw ship equipped with bow and stern tunnel thrusters which make her very manoeuvrable, and allows her to support very different scientific tasks. Another advantage is that she was built as a very spacious ship. In comparison with other ships the labs are big and well arranged, the hallways are fairly wide and the single cabins are comfortable.

What is the greatest challenge on a research vessel (in comparison to other types of ship)?

On a research vessel the main challenge is the diversity of different tasks and regions that we work in. On a container ship, fishing boat or a drilling vessel the function of the ship is very well defined. On a research vessel the scientific goal changes every few weeks and so do the tasks that go along with it. Also, we are at home from the ice shelf to the Caribbean depending on the expedition. This diversity is nice, but also requires different approaches in terms of how to deal with the equipment.

In what way do you follow the science on board? Do you have special scientific interests that you follow when possible?

Different types of cruises can be interesting in different ways. On more biologically orientated cruises fauna and flora can be observed directly. But often scientific findings are not available until sometime after the cruise. From a navigator’s point of view, physical cruises are interesting, because they provide more information about physical features like water currents and waves. I particularly like cruises where ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles) are deployed. Being equipped with cameras they allow for direct in-situ observation of the underwater environment.

What type of cruise do you find most challenging (e.g. physically, biogeochemical or benthic) and why do you find the respective types of work more challenging, from a captains perspective?

Every cruise is different and therefore poses different challenges. In general, the more multidisciplinary the cruise is the more management is required to satisfy all demands. This can be very challenging.

The deployment of larger equipment (e.g. ROV) can be quite challenging. The larger the equipment the more caution has to be taken to avoid collisions with the ship’s hull. Underwater currents can make it hard to steer ROV’s. So care must be taken to not get them too close to the ships propeller. Setting out or retrieving mooring requires a lot of skill for similar reasons. Here you have to be particularly careful to avoid interference with the thrusters. On the RRS James Cook  that has never happened, but there are reported incidences where moorings got sucked into the propellers. This is of cause a very serious issue, since it not only destroys the mooring but also, more importantly, can damage the propeller.

How do you oversee such a diverse and ever changing group of people confined on a ship like this?

Most of the people that work on research vessels have being going to sea for many years and therefore know how things are done. The crew normally work out little issues by themselves. To be overly controlling is not helpful in these situations. But of course, if required I will step in and make sure that people respect the rules and each other. As a captain you have to have authority. But it is similarly important that you can rely on senior staff and scientists. It is important to keep people busy and to take an interest in the people on-board and what is happening during the cruises. This can avoid a lot of unpleasant situations. But most importantly you have to be honest!

Do you have a lot of free time on-board? How do you like to spend you free time on-board?

Yes and no. I am on call all of the time (24 hours a day, seven days a week) and as Captain I have the overall responsibility for the ship and the crew. Every day at 08:30 there is a morning meeting with the PI (principal investigator/chief scientist) and the chiefs of the other departments (e.g. chief engineer) on-board, where we discuss previous work days and the tasks of the day. The rest of the morning I normally spend doing paper work. I also have a bit of an educator role for the younger officers. In my free time I enjoy watching DVDs and going to the ship's gym. But most of the time I spend reading.

Thank you very much Captain John Leask for the interview! 

Find out more about the RRS James Cook  on our Ship page.

Monday, 3 June 2013

3 - The thrill of anticipation

We are now just 12 hours away from the Porcupine Abyssal Plain observatory (PAP), and the start of some really exciting work on the upper 1000 metres of the water column - which we call the twilight zone. It is here that natural sunlight becomes extinguished with increasing depth.

We have been planning this cruise for three years or so and although I have been coming to sea for a good while, I always find this period just before we start work to be a particular thrill. In this case it is even more so, as much of the work is really novel.

Our mission is of considerable interest to the scientific community and of particular relevance to current concerns about climate change. The basic question is to understand what controls the downward transport of carbon from the surface sunlit layer, and from the atmosphere, into the deep ocean. What we will try to do in particular is to examine the link between the structure and function of the upper ocean biology and this sinking flux of carbon.

As leader of the expedition, my task is to make sure that all the various types of work we are doing bind together as an integrated package. Due to the diversity of tasks and needs of the different scientists, this is not such an easy task. However, with the abundant good will and enthusiasm on board, I am sure this will be achievable.

It is a real pleasure to lead a scientific party representing 13 different nationalities, nearly half of which are women scientists.

Richard Lampitt (Chief Scientist)

Sunday, 2 June 2013

2 - Setting up a lab at sea – a nutrient chemist's perspective

It’s been a hectic time.  First of all the packing, which can take weeks to make sure everything is working before it’s sealed in its box and sent to the ship - as well as trying to think through every possible requirement on the cruise.  When the equipment arrived at the ship we had to unload it quickly and start setting up.  With only 24 hours until the ship sailed it was a busy time for Emily and I, making sure all the equipment was found, put into position and securely tied down so it wouldn’t move if we hit bad weather.  This was finally achieved and we were able to set sail.

However, this is far from the end of the story.  Tying everything down is not the end of it all.  The first day at sea saw us trying to reconnect the hundreds of tubes that are essential for the running of the Segmented Flow Auto-Analyser which I use to measure nutrients in the sea water.  By the end of day one this was complete and we hadn’t even switched the instrument on yet.  Day two was a slow day as we got used to the movement of the ship again.  We concentrated on getting the chemicals made up for the Auto-Analyser and finally, after one day of setting up and two days at sea we were able to switch it on.  At moments like this there can always be problems and this time was no exception.  Thankfully we were able to sort out the minor leaks and other problems quickly.

We are now on day three of the cruise and we are due at the PAP site tomorrow.  Today we ran our first full test of the Auto-Analyser, which passed without mishap so we are finally ready for samples.  Three days of hard work have paid off and we can finally relax for a few hours tonight before the start of the scientific work tomorrow.

An oceanographer’s work is never done...

By Mark Stinchcombe