A long day of sampling, sightings & hundreds of wildlife pictures @SeaWatchersUK

by Giulia La Bianca, Sea Watch Foundation

Yesterday it was the first day for the CTD’s team to deploy their devices in the water column to sample salinity, water and oxygen. All members of the team diligently adapted their resting time depending on their “watches”. Therefore very few people turned up for breakfast, which means – ironically – that everyone started to be very busy.

A few people that were off-watch had the chance to be entertained by lots of playful common dolphins and seabirds. When observing wildlife from a big ship, it is very difficult to choose your viewing platform. Today has been one of those days where from any platform you would be able to spot marine wildlife, no matter what height you are above sea level. We were surrounded by common dolphins and several species of seabirds anywhere around the Discovery. From the monkey island, I got hundreds of pictures of common dolphins and seabirds.

You can find attached few pictures that I selected, especially for my mum. Yesterday was her birthday and I’d like to say Buon Compleanno Mamma!

Photos by Giulia La Bianca

A spectacle straight out of a nature documentary….

by Winnie Courtene-Jones

Today marked the long anticipated start of the Extended Ellett Line transect and CTD deployments. The first station is located just off the west coast of Scotland and so as we ate breakfast we were in sight of land. After looking out and seeing only waves since we left Southampton just over a week ago there was a real sense of excitement from all the scientists on board, and lots of picture taking of the green mountains of Scotland.

Next to begin CTD’s; no sooner had the first CTD gone in the water someone shouted “dolphins”. A group of common dolphin approached the ship, perhaps curious about the noises coming from the CTD. All those not on duty ran up to the fore deck to get a surround view of the dolphins. Those on ‘watch’ (including myself) dutifully sampled the CTD, taking water samples for analysis of dissolved oxygen concentration, nutrients and salinity.

Once the samples were safely transferred to the lab, we all headed back out to catch a glimpse of the dolphins. We need not have worried about missing any of the action as the sea was alive with common dolphin and diving seabirds. We could see dark patches- bait balls of fish, under the water’s surface which were attracting the dolphins pushing the fish up to the surface where gannets, guillemots, arctic terns, gulls and skua’s were taking advantage of the bounty of fish.

Pods of common dolphin kept appearing and joining the feeding frenzy; others swam right up to the boat, so close you could hear their blows as they surfaced. They were truly incredible to watch, their grace and synchronicity as they leapt and twisted through the waves was remarkable. Being so close to so many dolphins (a conservative estimate of ~ 60 individuals) and seabirds was a true spectacle, something straight out of a nature documentary.

The nature of CTD’s means the ship travels between stations and then spends periods of time stationary, when we are conducting the CTD deployment. We have been incredibly lucky as dolphins have come to join us throughout the day, bow riding, breaching and swimming right under the boat while we have been stationary. They appeared to be curious about the CTD, circling around it and coming extremely close when it was in the water. Seeing common dolphin riding through the waves, the ease by which they move and their sheer playfulness, cannot help but make you smile. Everyone is in high spirits. This has been a great start to the CTD transect, let’s hope our luck continues (despite threats of a coming storm)!

Photos by Winnie Courtene-Jones

Finishing our mooring operations in the Rockall Trough #EEL17

by Penny Holliday

Today we re-deployed the last of the UK OSNAP moorings in the Rockall Trough. It was raining and cold, but the seas were calm and that helped the operations go smoothly. We will be back again to recover these moorings in summer 2018.

Last night we were treated to a rather pretty sunset through a misty horizon, at the end of a day in calm and slightly damp and eerie conditions. All of this good weather we’ve been having has been really great for the mooring operations. However the forecast is looking rather "spicy" for later in the week – I knew it couldn’t last!

So here are a collection of photos from the past 2 or 3 days, giving a flavour of the work we have been doing.

Photos by Penny Holliday

Cold-Water Coral Gardens of the Atlantic: Do they have a future? @eu_atlas @ScotMarineInst #EEL17

by Stuart Cunningham

The Atlantic Ocean is a living soup full of nutrients feeding plankton, fishes, dolphins, whales and seabirds. And of course we exploit these ecosystems to feed our growing population. Less well known are the fantabulous beds of cold-water coral gardens growing all round the Atlantic Ocean. Think of the Great Barrier Reef in the Pacific Ocean formed from warm-water corals. Our Atlantic coral gardens grow in deeper, colder waters and are no less spectacular and valuable, and no less vulnerable than their better know tropical cousins.

The natural resources of the Atlantic have the potential to help support the growing needs of the human population. Fishing for new species, discovering chemicals for new medicines, identifying novel marine genetic resources, mining the seabed for minerals and of course drilling for oil. All of these will be more beneficial for society if they can be carried out sustainably. ATLAS is a European scientific research programme to study Atlantic Ocean coral ecosystems and will provide governments, industries and researchers with new scientific understanding helping to support sustainable use of Atlantic resources. Physicists, biologists, geochemists and geneticists from 24 Laboratories and Universities around Europe are all working together in this great scientific enterprise.

A most exciting area of research is that done at sea from Research Ships. Today a team of 20 scientists, students and technicians supported by 20 officers and crew are at sea on board the UK Royal Research Ship Discovery. We sailed from Southampton and will finish in Reykjavik, Iceland in a few weeks time.

One of the more challenging missions today is to deploy a series of moorings across the Rockall Trough (the area of the Atlantic Ocean west of Scotland). A mooring is a wire anchored to the sea-bed, kept vertical by floats and coming to within 50m of the sea-surface. Today we are deploying moorings that are 1.8 kilometers long. These moorings are a traditional way to put instruments in the ocean at the same locations and depths and over many years. Physicists use these to measure ocean circulation, temperature and salinity. We can then determine how ocean circulation is changing in time.

The exciting work today is to deploy on a mooring a Remote Access Sampler for capturing water samples. The water samples will be collected in 18 months time and analysed for a whole range of nutrients and chemicals. Combining data from our physical measurements with the chemistry measurements will give us a better understanding how the ocean circulation and the soup of nutrients together help support healthy coral gardens. Our goal is to help sustain these ecosystems for future generations.


A Trans-Atlantic assessment and deep-water ecosystem-based spatial management plan for Europe

Photos by Penny Holliday

Surveying open ocean seabirds from the #RRSDiscovery monkey island for @SeaWatchersUK #EEL17

Giulia La Bianca is a volunteer for the conservation organisation, Sea Watch Foundation. Her role on board is to carry out a careful and structured survey of birds and marine mammals during the three weeks that we are at sea.

Her favoured position at the start of the cruise has been the monkey island – which is the open deck above the Bridge and pretty much the highest point that you can go on the ship. From there she has a fantastic, uninterrupted view across the wide open ocean which makes surveying the birds very clear. However, it’s really quite exposed up there and we have had to kit her out in some warm, water-proof and wind-proof clothing so she doesn’t freeze!

Today it has been very cold and windy, and so she very sensibly retreated to inside the Bridge where it is warm and cups of tea can be made….

Below are photos some of the birds she has seen – including some that might surprise you.

Photos by Giulia La Bianca

Life in the deep: colonisation of OSNAP moorings

by Winnie Courtene-Jones

Today two OSNAP moorings were collected, these were deployed on the east and west flanks of the central region of the Rockall Trough during a cruise in July 2016. The moorings have a number of instruments and floats fastened to a long chain which collect temperature, salinity and water velocity data throughout the water column. Upon sending an acoustic signal from the ship, these moorings are released from the seabed and the floats come up to the surface, where they can be brought on board.

This makes the process sound extremely simple but in reality locating and hauling the mooring on-board is a bit more tricky. The ship was a hive of activity and watching the skill of the crew was very impressive; they manoeuvred and lowered the heavy chains and floats, and delicate instruments onto the deck with ease.

Given that this equipment has been in the water for the last 10 months a number of marine organisms had colonised the floats. Those floats nearer the surface were colonised by large barnacles, while those at a depth of nearly 500m had large anemones and some cold water coral on its surface. It’s fascinating to see these establishing themselves in the deep sea after a relatively short period of time. Individuals were sampled to investigate the abundance of small pieces of plastic (microplastics) ingested by species inhabiting the mid-waters in the North East Atlantic Ocean.

Photos by Winnie Courtene-Jones

Starting over the side work – testing the kit and training the samplers

by Penny Holliday

Today marks a key day in the cruise – the start of over the side work. It’s taken us 3 days to get to the location where we want to work – just long enough for people to get used to the ship, but getting close the point at which some could get bored. But there is no time to be bored now – for the next 3 weeks we’ll be working hard to get everything done.

One of the first jobs on the cruise when we get out into deep water (~1000m) is to test our equipment and train up the people who will be collecting water samples for various analyses later on. This can be an exciting time with lots of people watching and taking photos, and a busy time as first-timers have a lot of information to take in, and experienced folk brush up on their skills.

The equipment in the picture below shows the instruments that make up our "CTD" and instruments that will be attached to our moorings. This whole package is lowered to just above the seabed to record data about the water it passes through. The instruments arranged in the lower part of the frame record temperature, salinity, pressure, oxygen, fluorescence (indication of algae in the water), transmittance (indication of concentration of particles in the water) and velocity.

When the CTD is close to the seafloor (10m above it), we start closing those vertical grey bottles on the frame. There are 16 in all on it at the moment (24 when it is full) and every so often we stop upward progress of the CTD and close a bottle by sending a signal down the cable. When it comes back on deck we draw off some water from each bottle that we’ll analyse for salinity, dissolved oxygen, nutrients, carbon and some isotopes. All of these things will eventually help us understand the role of the ocean in the oxygen, carbon and nutrient cycles of the planet.

Our first test was a shakedown CTD cast to make sure the main instruments work OK (they did!). The second was to test the self-contained mooring instruments (silver with red tape arranged vertically between bottles) and to collect data for calibrating them before they are left underwater for 18 months. I’m very pleased with the way things have gone today.