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).
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If you can read this, thank a plankton!

By Anthony Mott, Charles Darwin University

Sure, the bumper sticker says, “If you can read this, then thank a teacher”.  And that is true, you should probably thank a primary school teacher.

But in the six seconds it took you to read to this point you breathed three times, and microscopic plankton produced around two-thirds of the oxygen you breathed into your lungs. In fact, you have been reliant on plankton for much of your oxygen since you were born. This is not to say that the trees, plants and large intact forests such as the Amazon are unimportant, but marine studies since the 1980’s revealed that the tiny microorganisms that photosynthesise like plants and float around in the ocean are much, much more important than anyone realised. Collectively they contribute more oxygen into the atmosphere than any other living species. Plankton matter much more than your science teachers knew when they were trying to pique your interest.

RV Investigator sits at the wharf in Hobart, Tasmania before departing on the 2019 CAPSTAN voyage providing 18 students from across Australia hands-on training in marine science
RV Investigator sits at the wharf in Hobart before the voyage

This week eighteen postgraduate University students interested in the marine environment boarded CSIRO’s RV Investigator and sailed from Hobart on a slow trip to Fremantle to better understand Australia’s marine estate, which is actually larger than all the land Australia is responsible for. Along the way they have undertaken studies of plankton at various locations and at various depths, guided by another 20 senior scientists and technicians.  They also filled in some poorly defined spots by mapping the ocean floor, collected and examined samples of often ancient mud, gravel and ooze from undersea canyons, and measured different currents from the surface all the way to the ocean floor. But breathing is important, so arguably the plankton studies matter the most.

CAPSTAN student Anthony Mott stands on one of the outside decks of RV Investigator as the ship departs Hobart for 10 days of at-sea marine science training
Enjoying the deck of RV Investigator

Plankton are a broad category of tiny, often microscopic organisms that live mostly by drifting around in the water and include both plants and animals.  Some generate energy by acting like plants, and others devour other plankton. Plankton exist in both fresh and seawater, but marine plankton outnumber the rest simply by sheer number. The plankton that generate the oxygen we rely on are the plant-like plankton which photosynthesise just like plants on land – taking in CO2 and water, and releasing oxygen. They can have very short life cycles and can reproduce really quickly when conditions are right – often producing massive natural blooms in response to a sudden increase in nutrients, such as runoff from land or agricultural areas following a major storm.  Most marine plankton are made up of single cells and their small size means they are highly efficient and are an important mechanism for soaking up CO2 from the atmosphere, so plankton are an important part of the global carbon cycle.

CTD rosette with 36 niskin bottles is recovered from the ocean on board RV Investigator as part of CAPSTAN's hands-on marine science training
The niskin bottles on the CTD rosette can be seen coming out of the water

Once the RV Investigator neared the Victorian coast near Portland it positioned itself at the head of three undersea canyons to investigate their role in channelling coastal soil and sand down onto the undersea continental slope-looking at how they funnel cool, nutrient rich deeper water up from the depths up onto the continental shelf. This concentrated source of nutrients underpins a broad marine food web – with plankton being the first organisms to capitalise on the nutrient supply.  Very fine nets were dropped to capture the plankton populations at different depths.  Water samples were collected at the top, sides and bottom of the canyon systems. Collecting samples at different depths and locations provided important information on which conditions best suit different species, as well as provided some insights as to how widely certain species are distributed.  Nutrient rich waters close to the surface may contain up to a million microscopic plankton in one litre of water, whereas similar locations can yield completely different results with variations in factors such as temperature or nutrients. The Southern Ocean that circles just above Antarctica seems particularly important. And 40-odd marine scientists and students want to know why because any change in the mix and number of plankton may have significant implications for oxygen supply and the changing climate.

Deployment of the bongo nets for plankton sampling from RV Investigator as part of the CAPSTAN hands-on marine science training program.
RV Investigator’s crew and support staff deploy the Bongo nets to recover a vertical tow plankton sample

The southern Australian coast is home to many marine species not found anywhere else in the world. This region also attracts much travelled species like Southern Bluefin Tuna that spawn south of Indonesia and migrate south down the WA coast and across the Great Australian Bight to SA and Victoria; Southern Right Whales come here t0 breed and calve. The area also attracts rare and endangered marine mammals like Sperm, Killer, Blue, Minke, and Humpback Whales. It’s easy to be distracted by the big things, but they are all dependent on a sustainable food web that starts with the microscopic things that are easily overlooked. And that’s why 40-odd scientists braved forecasts of 12 metre swells and unpredictable weather to head into remote oceans to study the little, poorly understood, strange, but often beautiful creatures that make an under-recognised contribution to global oxygen and carbon cycles.

Initial data and sample collection

By Nathan Teder, Flinders University

The first two days at sea were mainly used to steam ahead to our study area off the coast of Portland, and due to this, the main thing that had occurred was seafloor mapping. We used a single beam sonar system to take data ranging between 5 m per sample to 50 m per sample depending on the depth of the location, and how flat the sea floor is, with topographic structures (i.e. canyons) being taken at a smaller resolution. This method of data acquisition does require some manual cleaning however (figure 1) due to the sonar system being susceptible to noise, especially on the edges of its pulses. This will be running throughout the voyage, but will be especially focused on a set of four canyons in the Otway Basin as these canyons could either be funnelling cold water turbidites to the submarine fan, or potentially playing a role in upwelling depending on if a low or high pressure system is present in the bight.

Bathymetric data displayed with a rainbow color scale.  Red represents the shallowest depths and blue indicates deeper waters.  CAPSTAN students on board RV Investigator learned how to do quality control to process this data as it was collected as part of their at-sea marine science training
Figure 1: The output of a small section of recently measured bathymetry in a 2D wave (top) and a 3D model (bottom). This screen allows the user to manually delete data points that are anomalous (noise).

Day three saw the first deployment of the CTD, plankton nets and coring samples from the sea floor. The plankton nets, and CTD both had samples which could be used to count marine life present at that depth. For the CTD, samples of 10 m, 40 m and 100 m were used with the amount of life decreasing as the depth increased, to the point the 100 m sample didn’t have any life present that was above 100 μm. This was an expected result, due to being at a depth which is deeper than the photic zone which would reduce the amount of life present, due to insufficient light. That said one of the more unsettling parts of this observational work was the amount of plastic present as the 100 m sample had ~ 49 blue fibres of >100 μm present in it, which was from 6 L of water. Switching to a horizontal tow of a phytoplankton net ended up getting a much better result life wise, with ~ 150 various forms of copepods, massive clumps of biomass, as well as a crustacean larvae at a ~ size of 1-2 μm (figure 2).

CAPSTAN students collected plankton from the Great Australian Bight/Bonney Upwelling Region using Bongo nets as part of their at-sea marine science training.  Here is a dead crustacean larvae under the microscope from one of the tow collections.
Figure 2: A dead crustacean larvae present in the towed net sample.

The first core was taken from a ~ depth of 1727 m, and from that, a 2.16 m section of the sea floor was obtained. This whole section was a homogenous olive coloured mud (figure 3) which was firstly split up into an archived, and a working core. The working core was then sampled at a rate of 1 per 10 cm, and each 10 cm block was sampled four time. There was also a point around the 1.73 m to 1.75 m section which was also sampled 3 times due to the presence of a broken shell at the surface. These samples will be analysed later on during the trip, once we move away from our study area.

Figure 3: The kasten core after initial sampling in the wet-dirty lab on RV Investigator

Once that was completed, smear slides were created using mud from the 1 m mark of that sample. These smear slides showed up some air pockets, and biotite in this sample (figure 4). We also saw foraminifera within the smear slides, which are a component of the cool carbonates we are focused on this trip. Our goals include trying to measure if they do descend down to the abyssal plane, and if a canyon system influences the amount that flows down.

Microscope view of sediments from a kasten core collected by CAPSTAN students on RV Investigator as part of their at-sea marine science training.  A variety of micro-organisms can be seen along with record or donut shaped air bubbles.
A smear slide made from sediment from 1 m depth in the Kasten core. Air bubbles are the ‘record’ looking circular objects and the black dots are biotite.

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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!

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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.

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“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”.