Return to Sea: Seabirds, Seamounts, and Science

By Jessie Bolin (2019 student alumni)

I’m Jessie, a first year PhD student at USC, and I was lucky enough to be a student participant on this year’s CAPSTAN voyage aboard RV Investigator from Hobart to Fremantle. The focus of the program was to train Australia’s next generation of interdisciplinary marine scientists, and we were exposed to field and lab techniques in sedimentology, geophysics, plankton, hydrochemistry, physical oceanography, and fauna identification. This was my first introduction to life at sea aboard a scientific research vessel, and I was hooked.   

Me on the fifth deck of RV Investigator (Photo Credit: Chantelle Ridley)

I have just returned from my second voyage on RV Investigator, where we spent 28 days cruising around the Coral Sea. The primary voyage goal, led by Chief Scientist Associate Professor Jo Whittaker, was to further understand the spatiotemporal extent of mantle plume activity in the Coral Sea, and to investigate how features in the region formed, like the Tasmantid and Lorde Howe seamount chains, and the Louisiade Plateau. This was done by using dredges (think of a massive net with teeth) to gather rock samples from seamounts and ridges, and using the multibeam echosounders to map the seafloor.

The rock dredge, affectionately named ‘Schnappi,’ with a nice haul (Photo Credit Amelia Smethurst).

In addition to the primary project, the voyage had other supplementary projects:

  • Understanding spatial links between geomorphology and biodiversity in the Coral Sea Australian Marine Park
  • Spatial and temporal variability in the distribution and abundance of seabirds
  • Collection of dead invertebrates dredged with geological samples
  • Transit over the likely wreck sites of the USS Lexington and USS Neosho
  • Educator on Board program
3D visualisation of Lexington Seamount (Photo Credit: Jessie Bolin).

I was involved with the “Seabirds at Sea” project, and my role was a seabird and marine mammal observer for Birdlife Australia. A typical day for our team would involve starting observations at Monkey Island (the top level of the ship) just before sunrise, and recording the number, species, and behaviour of any observed seabirds and marine mammals through to sunset, using a standard survey protocol used since the 1980s. At the end of our journey through the Australian, Papuan, Solomon and New Caledonian EEZ’s, we recorded over 14,000 seabirds and 27 species.

(Left) Another day at the office. (Right) An epic sunset. (Photo Credit: Jessie Bolin)

Out of the 27 species, my favourite was the red-footed booby. They’re quite the comical bird, and at one point, we had over 50 red-footed boobies perched on the mast (…and scientific equipment), which broke a record for RV Investigator. Boobies feast on flying fish, and it was beyond exciting watching the boobies chase and catch flying fish that were disturbed by the ship. Flying fish can glide up to 70 km/hr to escape predators, which makes the boobies even more remarkable! Also, I witnessed my first instance of kleptoparasitism by a frigatebird. Instead of catching their own food, frigatebirds incessantly harass other birds – usually boobies – causing the victim to regurgitate their own food, which the frigatebird then steals in mid-air.

(Left) Red-footed Boobies in pursuit of a flying fish. (Right) A Lesser Frigatebird. (Photo Credit: Eric Woehler)

The Investigator is a ship for all scientists, which meant I was exposed to a diversity of perspectives and scientific research from completely different research areas to my own. Each day we’d have a ‘science talk’, where someone volunteered to give a talk about something they’re working on. Talks were diverse, and ranged from intraplate volcanism in Eastern Australia (Ben Mather, USyd), to using AUVs and ROVs to measure the spatial variability of algae under Antarctic sea ice (Vanessa Lucieer, UTAS), to methods of Ancient Egyptian mummy preservation (Quinn Anderson, USyd). Never in my life would I have thought I’d get to learn about Ancient Egyptian mythology on a research ship in the middle of the Coral Sea, yet there I was. We also celebrated international pet rock day, which was a real hit – particularly for the geology team!

(Left) Entrants for International Pet Rock Day competition. (Right) Jamie Menzies, one of the Educators on Board, giving a talk on embodied learning for young scientists. (Photo Credit: Jessie Bolin)

A special moment for me (and many of the other scientists) was our final evening on the ship. The sun was setting, and we had just crossed into the East Australian Current on our way home to Brisbane. Seemingly out of nowhere, multiple pods of 50+ pilot whales and common dolphins appeared, and some of the dolphins started riding the bow waves! I’ll never forget the screams of excitement and complete joy that the marine mammals’ presence brought to the scientists and crew. They stayed with the ship for what felt like ages – it was a perfect end to a truly wonderful voyage.

Waiting for the final rock dredge in the sheltered science area (Photo Credit Jamie Menzies).

For any budding marine scientist, I’d highly recommend going on RV Investigator. My background is in marine ecology and data science, yet going on this voyage meant I got to learn about marine geology and geophysics, and I even discovered a newfound interest for all things basalt and deep-sea volcanism. Being at sea for a month has taught me loads about the value of interdisciplinary marine science and working in a small, tight-knit community, and the experience has forged friendships for life. Thank you to the CSIRO Marine National Facility for a generous grant of sea time that made this voyage possible – I can’t wait to go back!

The science team, support staff, and some of the ship’s crew (Photo Credit Huw Morgan).

Welcome to CAPSTAN voyage 2

By Maddie Brown, University of Melbourne

How many scientists does it take to play a board game? Enough to break the ice.


Welcome to CAPSTAN Voyage 2, a collaborative program to give young scientists an opportunity to experience marine research and life at sea. Step one of our journey required an introduction to each other and to the various disciplines that fit under the marine research umbrella. Geology, Chemistry, Biology, Oceanography and Geophysics just to name a few. One of the best ways we found to get to know each other was by playing board games at our accommodation in Hobart prior to boarding the RV Investigator. Teams were created and friendships born through rummy-cube, Monopoly and Settlers of Catan. It’s amazing how easily the group connected with their common logical minds and strategic thinking, qualities that are often associated with great scientists.

The CTD rosette goes into the water.

Our target stations are located just off Portland, so we spent a few days adjusting to shift work and familiarising ourselves with the ship. Geophysical data was collected continuously throughout our journey to help understand the bathymetry around Tasmania and Victoria, this will be continued right through to Fremantle. Day one at our first station and it was all systems go, the CTD rosette was loaded and ready to be winched off the ship to collect hydrochemistry data through the water column down to 1700 metres. The CTD collects samples at intervals through the column, directed by the Operations Room which we had the privilege of viewing and assisting the direction.

In addition to the CTD, coloured polystyrene cups were placed in an onion bag and sent with it, to showcase the increase of pressure with depth. After the CTD returned to the ship, the bongo net was put over the edge to collect plankton samples in shallow water depths (40 metres and 100 metres).

Normal off-the-shelf (‘before’) polystyrene cup and one after being decorated and submerged to 1800 meters. Photo Credit: Sophie Dolling

The last collection at this station was a Kasten Core, which is used to collect 3 metres of sediment below the sea floor. On top of all of this, bird and marine mammal counts were being conducted from the viewing point on the ship. We have been lucky enough to see several species of albatross, petrels, shearwaters and prions. We even saw six seals having the time of their lives hanging around the ship. Speaking of wildlife, the team of young scientists had some spare time at night to wind down. Naturally, we bonded over watching appropriate films, such as Finding Dory.

Voyage participants gather in the lounge on RV Investigator to watch Finding Dory and play games

We are only at the beginning of our journey through to Fremantle and I know there is so much more to learn. I’m already so grateful for what I have experienced and I can’t wait to wake up tomorrow to see what new knowledge lies ahead.

What a trip!

April Abbott, Macquarie University, Director of CAPSTAN
04b CAPSTAN students and trainers represent 12 universities_Image Marine National FacilityLast day group photo on the bow. Photo Credit: Marine National Facility/CSIRO

With an incredible crew, wonderful trainers, enthusiastic students, and favourable seas we couldn’t have asked for a more successful CAPSTAN pilot voyage!

JK2Drone in flight at sea. Photo Credit: J Kaempf

The last full day at sea was an appropriate end to an epic 13 days crossing the Great Australian Bight. Students recapped the research results, our sea bird counts soared (# of total individuals increased 4x over the last day), we had regular marine mammals checking us out, and flat seas allowed the drone back into the air! The day was split between observations, presentations, writing, cleaning, and some celebrating!

DSC_0775A seal was snoozing peacefully until we came along!

The morning was busy as students finalised their presentations, trainers cleaned the laboratories, and everyone took some time to enjoy our surroundings! Student groups presented their findings to the science team after lunch- each team a demonstration of the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration! The research completed in a short 4 days on station is incredible, especially considering over-the-side deployments ceased at night.

08 CAPSTAN students examine rock dredge sample_Image Marine National FacilityStudents sort the rock dredge. Photo Credit: Marine National Facility

Not only did the students’ ability to relate data across disciplines show, but their science communication skills also got a chance at the spotlight. Elise even broke down the importance of interdisciplinary approaches by relating the benthic ecosystem to by far the most popular board game of the trip, Settlers of Catan (one night after dinner 20% of the people on board were all playing at the same time!) – assigning each resource (wheat, wood, brick, etc) to an important ecosystem component (phytoplankton, benthic organism, sediment composition, etc).

DSC_0165.jpgDolphins riding the bow wave

It is hard to believe we’re back on shore already- we’ll miss our ship family! Who knows, we may even see some of our students back as trainers in the years to come!


The bow of the ship was busy most of the day, as calm seas and our proximity to Tasmania made for a beautiful sight and lots of marine visitors!

Stay tuned to the CAPSTAN website and this page as we start to look ahead to voyage 2019!

For more stories from this trip, check out my blog and the student’s group blog on the American Geophysical Union’s Field Blog.


“Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science

E Hubble 1929

Real Work Experience as a Petroleum Geoscientist

Muhammad Rashid Saleem, University of Western Australia

I Muhammad Rashid Salem, from University of Western Australia, express my feelings during Collaborative Australian Postgraduate Sea Training Alliance Network (CAPSTAN) 2017 program and my significant learning and achievement in different aspect such as geophysics, sedimentary geology, paleontology, and oceanography that helped me to get better understanding of marine geoscience processes.

Screen Shot 2017-12-04 at 4.25.14 PM.pngI characterise sediments through the microscope in one of the labs on board

Working on offshore as a petroleum geoscientist was my dream and this dream comes true just because of this uniquely tailored scientific research program. Working as a petroleum geoscientist student from the University of Western Australia in CAPSTAN program gives me an opportunity to work hands on in professional environment and gain actual work experience in the field. This scientific research program gave me an opportunity to interact with researchers from different universities and CSIRO professional staff; and helped me to improve my communication skills in professional environment. Personally, this research has introduced me to a lot of useful resources in my field. I hope the skills, which I achieved during research will be a tool to improve my chances as a job applicant and assist me to become a better employee in my area of interest.

Screen Shot 2017-12-04 at 4.25.21 PMOur chief scientist takes a phone call in the operations room

What’s fun?

Visiting the sites! It is very interesting to get on the back deck with other teaching staff and ship members to collect the cores and rock dredge material that come out of the sea floor surface. The study of deep ocean sediments under the microscopes in wet laboratory helped me to recognize different facies and their fossils. Other interesting studies include geophysical data to map the sea floor surface and to know about sub bottom profile and hydrochemistry to know about temperature and salinity of ocean.

Screen Shot 2017-12-04 at 4.25.43 PM.pngCAPSTAN students and trainers recover a gravity core

Entirely, I learnt about geoscience in depth and realize how important the data is, which we collected during over fieldwork for petroleum prospective. My favorite times are when everyone including staff gets together during free time and discuss the things in friendly way. Last but not least, I want to say thanks to chefs and kitchen staff for their delicious dishes and their care about my food will always be remembered.


What’s challenging?

Life in the field is always hard especially when you are working offshore for the very first time, but I am very fortunate to have cooperative teaching staff and student from different universities worked as a team and make this scientific research very easy. Keeping up everyday routine to perform different task are challenging, but in a good way – it pushes me and make me stronger to learn and improve my skills.

Screen Shot 2017-12-04 at 4.25.57 PM.pngA sediment grab is brought on deck

My advice to upcoming CAPSTAN group is that working on this scientific program is very interesting and rewarding but make sure that be prepared to work hard in challenging environmental conditions. If you are adventurous, though this opportunity will be right up you alley!

The Day the Students Took Over

By Rebecca Riggs, University of Sydney

On Saturday morning, we were told that we, the students, would be planning the next day. By planning, that meant we decided where exactly we would be going and the activities that we would be doing. Basically, it meant we all got to be “chief scientists” for the day (want more on the student led day? click here!). That afternoon, four groups gave pitches on what we thought should be undertaken the next day, which was our last day on site.

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The rock dredge being brought back up onto the deck.  We were watching anxiously from the 02 deck above!

Having had the last five days on the ship, we have all been able to gain an understanding of what activities are capable in this environment and the time frames which are involved. Using this newly acquired knowledge we were able to make realistic scientific plans, considering all disciplines of people on board. That meant CTD operations, vertical plankton net deployment, Smith Mac sediment grabs, multi-corer, gravity coring and the most exciting piece of equipment for the geologists on board, myself included, the ROCK DREDGE.

After all the groups gave their pitches, one member from each of the groups came together to finalise a plan. Saturday afternoon was spent in the operations planning and prepping for the next day. We choose to undertake gravity cores, CTDs, vertical plankton hauls (see some of the species here), rock dredges, and the multi-corer (weather dependant). The sites for all these operations were chosen– shout out to Stuart in the operations room for his patience and guidance in helping us choose the dredge and coring sites!

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Gravity core deployment.  The robotic arm holding the gravity core in place is just being pulled away ready for the core to be dropped.

We went to bed, happy with our decisions, leaving two members of the group up on night shift, ready to question Dr Thomas Hubble when he came into the operations room for his shift. The next morning we had a meeting in the chief scientist’s cabin, to discuss the plans for the day. At this point I began to understand the amount of planning and re-planning that is involved in being a chief scientist on a voyage.

The rest of the day we got more of a taste what it would be like to really be in-charge on a voyage. People asking you to make decisions on the spot, looking for certain people and equipment, and things not going exactly to plan.  But it was a lot of fun, and I now understand why the chief scientist gets the best view on the ship.

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Core processing begins! The core has just been brought back up onto the deck and the students are marking the liner so it can be analysed later in the voyage.

The afternoon was exciting: we retrieved two gravity cores and the most exciting part of the day, the rock dredge. The rock dredge was dropped and then it was an anxious but exciting wait up on the 02 deck, with Bec, Lena, and Karl as we watched the trawl winch pull up the dredge on its long journey back from the deep. At this point, I want to thank all the crew and all the team up on the bridge. This is no easy operation and it was executed extremely well!  Following that, thanks to the crew who dealt very well with a group of excited students running around when the rock dredge came back on deck.

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A beautiful sunset at the end of the day.  The perfect end to the perfect day.

This was the most exciting day for me so far on the ship. I got to watch a gravity core be deployed not once, but twice. Then when the core came back on board we were able to go out on deck, to help process it. We had a successful rock dredge, I got a small window into what it is like as a chief scientist on board a vessel such as the RV Investigator and we managed to get ourselves arms deep in mud. We, the students, have learnt so much on this voyage, and were only half way through. We all like to think we did a pretty good job, though I was very happy to hand my chief scientist hat back to Dr Jochen Kämpf at the end of the day. I want to finish with a quote from Matt Kimber, our voyage manager, and that is:

“If you want to get something done, give the job to the students”.


















Life in the middle of the Southern Ocean

By Ajinkya (AJ) Koleshwar, University of Western Australia


The Collaborative Australian Postgraduate Sea Training Alliance Network (CAPSTAN), was a spectacular opportunity for myself to broaden my scientific horizons aboard the RV Investigator. Prior to boarding the ship, the day was filled with nervousness, with a hint of excitement in meeting colleagues with similar interests from across Australia. However, upon boarding the ship, my nervousness suddenly transformed itself into being awestruck with an immense excitement by the enormous multi-disciplinary capabilities from the biological to the geological spectrum of the RV Investigator. The voyage briefing provided me with a strong overall understanding of the basic training that was going to be provided during the entire voyage, with a preliminary plan for the main stations and the tests that were going to be performed. A trip down to the hydrochemistry lab introduced the CAPSTAN students to the CTD (conductivity, temperature and depth) instrument. This was completely new to myself. The instrument in reality works towards measuring the complex relationship between pressure and depth involved with water density and compressibility. Furthermore, in the operations room upon the deployment and retrieval of the CTD, a fluorescence indicator helps identify the locations within the water column wherein a higher proportion of chlorophyll activity was present. This helps to deploy plankton nets (see some of the catch here) at the specified depths. Furthermore, the following instruments were introduced, the gravity monitor, a sediment grabber, the gravity core, and the rock dredge (see the mud here).

The best view on the ship is on top of at the observation deck (monkey island-it is that little deck above the blue roof in the photo below) above the bridge. The spot is optimal for bird and mammal watching. As marine birds account for approximately 3% of the proportion of birds, watching the albatross’, the shearwaters, and the gannets adapt to their surrounding in the middle of the ocean is phenomenal to witness. Their unique flight patterns and behaviours helped me appreciate and enhance my knowledge in the area (read more about the birds here).

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We made it! Boarding the RV Investigator for our CAPSTAN voyage.

A snapshot of November 18th on the ship was spread out from being able to contribute to each of the instruments in their data retrieval to the data acquisition. The first stop was up to the observation deck, from 08:00 UTC to 09:45 UTC, where mammal activity was not present, however there was an upwards of 20 birds seen with two albatross species, two shearwater species and one gannet species. The previous day was mesmerizing with a sighting of over 100 pilot whales next to the ship. Having never seen whales before, witnessing the behaviour of a large pod was an event I will personally cherish.

The observation deck, was followed by a thorough tour of the engine rooms. To witness first-hand the machinery that operates the ship, was indeed fascinating. I was personally surprised at the intricacies involved in running the engineering aspects of a research vessel and the dynamic changes required to successfully retrieve samples.

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Sunset on the night of November 18, 2017

Finally, the students were tasked with the responsibility of being the Chief Scientists to develop a science plan for the following day (check out more stories on how it went here!). The opportunity to be part of the dynamic planning involved in proposing a multi-disciplinary scientific strategy was an enriching experience. Four student groups were responsible for presenting their project plans to the entire science party. To arrive at a mutually agreed upon plan based on the inputs from each group, a delegate was nominated to work with the team of scientists to implement the strategy to enhance the overall training outcomes. The experience was highly interactive and invaluable to being able to understand the thought process involved in the dynamic nature of marine planning. The amount of effort required in planning and pin-pointing locations of interest to retrieve samples in a marine environment was astounding to witness. The CAPSTAN experience has surpassed my expectations and there is still 8 days left on the ship. The training provided on the voyage is definitely the stepping stone for moving into a future as a successful marine scientist.


Interdisciplinary Collaborations

By Sam Wines, Deakin University

This program has been a great example of the effectiveness and necessity of integrating many different scientists from many disciplines to paint the best picture of a certain marine environment. This inaugural CAPSTAN program has brought together 9 experienced trainers and 20 aspiring postgraduate students from disciplines ranging between ecology, geology, microbiology, oceanography, geophysics and hydrochemistry. As an early career marine scientist this has been an invaluable experience to hear and learn from people with so much different knowledge and skills.

The underlying scientific objective of our voyage was to explore an area of reported high biomass around the shelf break at the bottom of Western Australia. The key interest around this area is high numbers and diversity of megafauna. Once on site, it became very evident that our large range of expertise complemented each other extremely well.

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And we’re off! All types of scientists on board!

Our first task was to improve the resolution and coverage of our knowledge of the shape of the seafloor in this area. Our main study area was made up of three large canyons systems, namely Bremer, Whale, and Hood. This is my area of interest! We used many types of sonar technology to explore the seafloor. First, we used multi-beam sonar to paint a picture of the seafloor. The essence of this technology is that it sprays around 400 pings of sound at a time from the bottom of the vessel and then times the return to a transceiver on the bottom of the vessel. By knowing the speed of sound in water we are able to know the exact depth, and by using many beams we can paint a detailed picture of the seafloor.

We also use sub-bottom profiling to understand the sediments and water column bioacoustics to understand the biomass in the water column. This creates the basis of our sampling design. From here we handball the data on to the others groups such as our geologists, biologists, climate scientists, and hydrochemists.

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Scientist’s version of a movie night. Introducing everyone to the wonderful world of drop cameras.

So onto our friends the geologists. As a biologist, these are a very interesting species of human to observe. I have never experienced people that get so excited over something as seemingly simple as a rock or some mud. I must be missing some of the details! These guys use our multibeam and sub bottom data to locate areas of interest where they sample the rocks and sediments. From this, they are able to infer what past situations were like and help paint another aspect of the picture.

From the geomorphology found in our multibeam data, as well as an understanding of oceanography, we are able to track areas of high productivity and nutrients. This is also compared with constant fluorometry readings indicating nutrient rich water. Here our hydrochemists will deploy the CTD (Conductivity (salinity), Temperature, Depth) as well as taking water samples from various depths. From these samples, they will measure  nutrients throughout the water column. This data is then coupled with vertical nets that collect plankton samples. In the grand scheme of things, it is thought that this might tell us where there will be food for the megafauna and thus hint to where the megafauna (including whales) are most likely to be.

All in all this collaborative approach has allowed us to understand a great deal about the structures of this area and the interaction between the bathymetry, chemistry, and biology. In turn, our expertise has allowed people from the other fields to further their efficiency and understanding of what is being sampled.

Once upon a ship…

By Helen Hayes, University of Technology Sydney

Let me share with you a tale from the high seas; a story of adventure, discovery and uncertainty. Our intrepid explorers are a motley band of 20 eager, young students, 9 wise trainers, and a crew chirpier than a nest full of songbirds. They have united under the CAPSTAN banner onboard the RV Investigator; a stunning ship built for the sole purpose of researching the azure depths of Australia’s oceans, all in the name of marine science!

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Hosing the vertical plankton net while the ship is stationary

Our story begins not at the start of the CAPSTAN voyage, but rather, at the end of the first phase of the programme. The Investigator has spent the first few days collecting data around the western shelf area of the Great Australian Bight. These explorers seek neither diamonds nor gold; they hunt to uncover the jewels of biology, geology, and hydrochemistry that have not been revealed before in this area.

With the data collected and samples onboard, the Investigator begins her journey across the open ocean of the Great Australian Bight towards Hobart. Explorers and crew alike celebrate the success of their efforts, for the data is had and the processing can now begin. The excitement calms and our explorers can focus on analysing the samples.

Or so I thought; an overexcitable student onboard, starting her first night shift of the voyage. For this explorer, the secrets of the Great Australian Bight were not yet finished revealing themselves. Tales from the other students had left the impression in my mind that the night shift was an uneventful time, spent periodically logging the ship’s location and other information such as wind speed and temperature.

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One overly-excited explorer

Shortly after beginning my watch, my scientific interest in phytoplankton brought my attention to look at the fluorescence data recorded by the ship as she moved (learn more about the ship’s underway data here). Fluorescence – a measure of phytoplankton abundance in the water – had been consistently low throughout the voyage. However, at this precise moment, my eyes began to see a rapid increase in the fluorescence reading, as well as a drop in the temperature of the ocean over the space of a few minutes.

Such a stark rise in fluorescence had not been seen on the voyage and my curious mind urged me to rally the other explorers so that we could capture this fluorescence peak in an underway plankton net. After running around the ship and rousing the explorers, we succeeded in sampling this peak in fluorescence. My heart was pounding at the sheer unexpectedness of such an event, but on-shift or off-shift, science waits for no one, especially on a research voyage.

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Ceratium, a type of dinoflagellate phytoplankton that I love!

With the end of my watch fast approaching, I feel lethargic and spent from the excitement of the day. However, my longing for sleep is dashed when our control room receives a call from the bridge. An enormous shoal of squid has crossed the path of the Investigator and the bridge have never seen anything like it! The three of us in the Operations Room drop everything and run up the 4 flights of stairs to the bridge to catch a glimpse of this incredible phenomenon happening around us. The spotlight is aimed off the port bow and we can see hundreds of ghostly, translucent shapes flashing in view as the ship continues her course. I am transfixed on the size of the aggregation we have just arrived at and I cannot believe my eyes are seeing such an event.

Although my watch ended, and I eventually retired to the world of sleep after the shoal of squid left the spotlight, my dreams took me to a world filled with wonder and a wealth of knowledge to learn. Daylight brought about the news that we passed through the shoal of squid for over 2 hours! How lucky was I to witness this event while most of my fellow explorers were sleeping, and our beloved Investigator was at the right place at the right time?

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Sunset before my night watch begins.


Which brings the tale of this intrepid explorer to an end; after a night of emergency plankton sampling and an impromptu visit from some marine wildlife.

I complete this log with two nuggets of gold; plans never go the way we imagine, and the world is filled with so much to explore, if we only take the plunge!

A multidisciplinary approach to a multidisciplinary environment

By Helen Truscott,  Charles Darwin University

Natural systems, processes, and environments rarely fall into a single scientific discipline. Yet often in our fields of expertise we attempt to approach our understanding of them and analysis of them through a narrow singular discipline methodology. The CAPSTAN programme breaks this mould with a multidisciplinary approach to a multidisciplinary problem.

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A sediment grab sample teeming with life

I joined the voyage with an ecology background and an interest in fisheries and sustainable livelihoods. But I soon had handfuls of mud, seawater filled sample bottles, self-made plankton slides, newly acquired mapping skills, a pair of binoculars strapped around by neck, and was launching velocity probes 1000 m into the depths.

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Me preparing for the launch of the XBT (eXpendable BathyThermograph) to measure the sound velocity of seawater down to a depth of 1000 m

On our first sampling day, I found prime position on deck to watch the Smith Mac Grab and gravity corer in action then waited for my shift in the lab to start to explore what had been collected. I learnt geologists and sedimentologists are possibly some of the most enthusiastic people out there and that it is contagious. Learning what sediments contain and what they can tell us about the environment past and present was extremely interesting and is an important piece in the larger oceanic picture.

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The gravity corer being deployed to collect sediment from the seafloor in 530 meters of water

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Our first session in the sedimentology lab included an introductory lesson on identifying and classifying sediments collected by the Smith Mac Grab from 1100 m water depth

Adding to this picture, is the physical form of the seafloor. I have often looked at bathymetric images without much thought as to how mapping the seafloor is actually an immense task.  Seeing the sonar mapping in action put into perspective the scale of task at hand, and the vast reaches of ocean floor yet to be explored.

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Seafloor imaging using sonar from the operations room of the RV Investigator.  Displayed here, the shelf edge in East Bremer Canyon which was an area mapped during the inaugural CAPSTAN voyage.

Understanding the ocean floor characteristics and sedimentation is still only a small part of a very big picture. The days following involved hydrochemistry with CTD deployments and nutrient testing and vertical plankton net hauls. I filled slides with zooplankton and chased them around with a microscope while they tried to swim out of view. Through the microscope you get a glimpse at a whole other world and some of the most unusual creatures imaginable.

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Plankton sample collected from the vertical plankton tow.  The plankton net was dropped to 100 m, and on the way up the plankton funnels through the net into the plastic cob (closed PVC section pictured here).

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One of the microscopes in the lab that we used both for getting a closer look at plankton and at the sediments!

Next was a task more in my field. Typically, my subjects swim, often they crawl, climb and slither, and occasionally they hop. But bird survey are quite different.  These flying subjects have speed and agility and an endless blue ocean surface to seamlessly disappear over. Trying to distinguish bill colour on a seabird flying past at high speeds through binoculars takes a keen eye, steady hands and patience. I am interested to see how the observations of these top ocean predators aligns with our understood models of ocean productivity or if new drivers of sea bird aggregations and distribution are uncovered. This highest tropic level adds to the bigger picture, helping tie the biological to the oceans physical processes.

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A Gibson’s Wandering Albatross observed during our voyage across the Great Australian Bight.  Photo Credit E. Woehler

At any stage of the day through the ship’s intranet you have at your fingertips is biological data, underway seawater data, operational information, and a range of cameras to watch equipment deployment, keep track of activities, and generally run your phone battery flat very quickly.


Only part way through the voyage and gaining new knowledge and skills daily, I already have gained a much broader and comprehensive knowledge of oceanographic process, systems and characteristics. Apart from coming home with a note book full of lists titled ‘things to learn more about’ and ‘look this up’ which will undoubtedly turn my Christmas study break into less of a study break and more of a self-guided research unit. I am also coming home with an appreciation on the linkages and cooperation required from a vast range of scientific disciplines in understand environments, essential to answer the questions they pose.









Eat – Research – Sleep!

By Rhiannan Mundana, University of Tasmania

Although the excitement remains, life on-board the RV Investigator has settled into a nice routine – eat, research, sleep. The sea sickness has passed, the wonderful meals are being portioned to avoid extreme weight grain, and many of us have learnt the popular game, Settlers of Catan, played by all the crew. The research-side of life continues to enthral us all, with geology, oceanography, biology and geochemistry well-combined in the marine context in hands-on research projects to keep us busy all day.

Today was particularly interesting as we, the 20 students on-board, determined exactly what samples to be collected today. Yesterday we were presented with the challenge of producing a plan collaboratively, accounting for factors such as time, resources, samples needed for different fields, etc.  All 20 of us became ‘chief scientists’, and determined that our day would focus on collecting gravity cores, plankton, and even attempt a few rock dredges.

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Trainers and students sort rock dredge samples on the aft deck

I started the day off with my favourite activity – analysing the sediments collected from the sea floor by either a Smith McIntyre Grab or a gravity core. With my Honours thesis focused on sedimentology, I am absolutely loving the opportunity to look at and analyse seafloor sediments with leading specialists in the field. Today we analysed sediment from one of the gravity cores, from which we separated four different grainsize particles to look at each component separately. As was drilled into us form Day 1, we needed to describe the sediment in terms of five characteristics: grain size, sorting, roundness, sphericity, and composition. The first four characteristics were determined relatively easily by getting our hands dirty and looking at the mud with a hand lens. The exciting part started once we got the dried samples under the microscope to look at all the components. With a bit of help, we identified a number of different biogenic components, including worm tubes, sponge spicules, coral fragments, and shell fragments. After this we helped with the collection of another gravity core. Luckily, this core was 2.8 m long – more than any we had collected previously! Geared up with our hard hat and life-jacket, we helped separate the core into 1 m sections to be brought back into the ship for later analysis.

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Helen and I enjoying our sausage at the BBQ on the Bridge!

In the afternoon we were invited to join the Master and crew for a BBQ on the bridge. It was really nice to relax with the beautiful views up there with everyone, enjoying a sausage or two! The afternoon also saw the exciting stuff – the rock dredges. As our previous rock dredge had disappointingly returned no rocks, we were all hoping that this dredge would be a success. After a few hours, we pulled up a large haul of rocks! We are all grateful to the Master and crew for making these types of retrievals possible and successful. A huge amount of time, sweat, and energy from the crew and science teams are needed, so it’s so rewarding for everyone when it all goes to plan!

Signing off till next time!