It’s definitely better out where it’s wetter

By Sian Liddy, University of Sydney

It was somewhere between popping my first sea-sickness tablet and putting on the hi-vis vest to step on to RV Investigator that it finally sunk in – I was about to spend two weeks sailing across the Southern Ocean on a world-class research vessel. It was simultaneously daunting and indescribably exciting to be spending time on a ship managed by the CSIRO and Marine National Facility, sailing with leading experts from different fields of environmental science.

A double rainbow off the bow

One of the main reasons I applied to CAPSTAN was to get a better understanding of how research vessels function at sea, and to help short circuit the “need job to get experience, need experience to get job” cycle. This experience was jump-started as soon as we switched to ship’s power and began steaming out of the harbour. We dived head-first into preparations for when we arrived on site, labelling sample bags for the sediment cores, prepping petri dishes for the plankton counts, and familiarising ourselves with the OPS room. This period was made that bit more challenging by the waves of tiredness brought on by the sea sickness tablets we were all taking, and the harsh discovery that my coffee addiction was making me seasick! But these little hurdles were promptly forgotten as we arrived on site at the canyons – where it was all systems go. Observing how the infinitely capable chief scientist Leah Moore made the big calls that shaped the rest of the fieldwork (and ultimately the data that we’d get from the trip) as new information came to light that affected our field plans, has given me more confidence to back my own opinions when making informed decisions in my PhD fieldwork.

A picture looking back up at the bridge from the bow to see the orange and blacks of sunset reflected in the window.  Taken on board RV Investigator during the 2019 CAPSTAN hands-on marine science training voyage.
Sunset reflecting in the windows of the bridge

The following two days operating around the clock sending CTDs (Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth water sampling device), Kasten Corers, and Bongo-net plankton tows down into the ocean’s depths was a stand-out period of the trip for me. The mentors’ passion for their chosen subject area was infectious and made learning new advanced techniques from foreign fields a breeze. Coming from a marine ecology background and seeing the excitement on everyone’s faces (…and hearing them spontaneously break into Christmas Carols) as they unpacked the second core taken from 2200 m that contained turbidites was fantastic – it was impossible not to get caught up in the flurry of excitement as well. Equally, it was awesome to share the trip’s cool biological discoveries with the geologists, and build the interdisciplinary understanding of the system we were working on as a collective.

Fine grained calcareous sediment is overlain by coarse broken calcareous shell and bryazoan fragments in a cool-water carbonate turbidite cored as part of hands on marine science training during CAPSTAN's 2019 voyage on RV Investigator
Mud, glorious mud! Cool water carbonate turbidite collected in the kasten core.

Aside from the (literally) ground-breaking science we were conducting, I really couldn’t have asked for a better team of students and trainers to sail with.  From the first night playing Rummy-O in Hobart, to venturing out at sunset to wave hello to our friends and family back home on the live feed camera, to high-intensity games of around-the-world-ping-pong, these guys have kept me smiling from ear to ear for the past 12 days!

CAPSTAN students take a fun group photo overlooking the bow at sunset during the 2019 voyage on RV Investigator.
Fun on deck at sunset

The number of accomplished female scientists on board the ship has also been very inspiring.  Chief Scientist Leah, quantitative ecologist Alice, microbiologist Lisa, oceanographer Veronica, and geochemist April, have all been great role models and mentors to me whilst at sea.  Their amazing knowledge and skillsets, resilience, strength, senses of humour, unwavering positive attitudes and willingness to help at all hours of the day and night are just some of the attributes I hope to learn from them, and encompass in my future career too.

A tiny buddha painted on the ship
You never know what you’ll find around the ship.

After the two-day whirlwind of being on station passed, we got stuck into analysis and writing as we steamed towards Fremantle and returned to a more regular schedule (I’ve never been happier to wake up at 5:30am!). Seminars and skill development workshops have continued, as well as the odd tour or two. However, even after a number of tours of the restricted zones of the ship, it maintains a feeling of discovery in the air. Whether that might be for finding another hidden gem like this little buddha painted somewhere secret on the ship, mapping an unnamed seamount, or identifying an unknown hotspot of biological activity, only time will tell.

Now onto planning my next seafaring research voyage!

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