Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Heading back to sea!

I still can't quite believe I'm getting to spend so much time on research cruises this year! It's all very exciting! After the success of the Changing Oceans 2012 expedition which I was involved with last month, I've managed to grab a brief two weeks on shore before heading off tomorrow to join the RRS Discovery (the 50 year-old one, not the new one!) in Southampton to take part in the AESA cruise at the Porcupine Abyssal Plain (NE Atlantic). To give it its full title, the cruise is called:

Autonomous Ecological Surveying of the Abyss:
Understanding Mesoscale Spatial Heterogeneity
at the Porcupine Abyssal Plain

Which sounds pretty damn cool, doesn't it?

Essentially the aims of this cruise build on work we conducted on the RRS James Cook last August which aimed to collect preliminary data about the distributions of megafaunal animals across the abyssal seabed using an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). Unlike an ROV (a remotely-operated vehicle), which is constantly linked to the research ship via a tether cable and controlled directly by operators on-board, AUVs are pre-programmed with a route and details of what instruments to use and when, and then dropped into the sea where they will automatically follow their programming and then return to the surface when they're done. The lack of a tether system means that not only is the base ship able to continue working with other gears while the AUV is in the water, but that AUVs can access areas that are inaccessible to ROVs (e.g. under ice).

Image taken from the NOC website: http://www.noc.soton.ac.uk/aui/autosub.htm

The plan for the AESA cruise is therefore to send the AUV (we're using AUTOSUB) down to the abyss and send it off to conduct photographic surveys of the seafloor to assess how different animals are distributed across the seabed and how they respond to changes in the seafloor habitats (e.g. surrounding and on top of abyssal mud mounds) over a relatively fine scale. As usual, I'll be studying the fish that we see on the forward-facing camera, while others will be studying the invertebrate fauna using a downward-facing camera. Continuous surveying of physical environmental parameters will also be done at the same time. And while the AUV is busily collecting all its data, we can continue to work on collecting, processing and storing... you guessed it! Mud! I can't wait!

Deep-sea mud. Glorious, glorious, mud!

Since the RRS Discovery is the older sister-ship to the RRS James Cook, I'm expecting that we should have some (albeit limited) internet access while we're away, so I will hopefully be able to keep you updated on our progress and any other cool things we see as we go through the cruise. Also, since my research typically involves video & photographic analysis rather than lab work, I've made up a little side project of my own to run alongside the serious science! ... But you'll have to wait and see to find out what it is!