Supporting scientists at sea

The creativity and skill of a small group of specialist technicians have provided scientists with the first insights into the Antarctic sea ice environment in early spring and an unprecedented glimpse at life on the bottom of the Southern Ocean.

During two International Polar Year marine science voyages — the Sea Ice Physics and Ecosystem eXperiment (SIPEX) and the Collaborative East Antarctic Marine Census (CEAMARC) – in September 2007 and March 2008, respectively, the Australian Antarctic Division’s Marine Science Support team designed, manufactured and maintained much of the unique data-gathering equipment deployed from the Aurora Australis.

Marine Science Support (MSS) is a small section within the Science Technical Support unit of the Antarctic Division, which consists of engineers, gear officers, computer programmers and electronic technicians. On each voyage the team works from 20-foot containers, which act as storerooms and workshops, and take all kinds of electrical and mechanical parts and supplies.

‘Whilst we know what spares and consumables we need to run and maintain Antarctic Division equipment, we have to anticipate what may be required for other organisations’ equipment,’ marine engineer, Tony Veness, says.

'Equipment is often designed at short notice with little time for testing in the real-life situation and there are a lot of “first offs” on many voyages, so we need to accommodate on-the-fly modifications and improvements.'

A video camera mounted on a beam trawl for CEAMARC, for example, was a first for the Aurora Australis. Prior to the voyage the MSS team took a standard video camera and fabricated watertight housings that could withstand the extreme pressure of working at depths of up to 2000m. The team worked closely with the Antarctic Division’s instrument workshop to design the housings and, after models had been made and tested, the final product was machined, anodised and pressure tested — in one month. Modifications were then made as required during the voyage.

'We were making changes to the camera and lamp angles, focal length and the embedded software of the system controller throughout the voyage, to improve the stability and clarity of images,' Tony says.

Equipment designed for the SIPEX voyage had its own peculiar requirements. As the scientists were interested in the sea ice and the ocean at shallow depths in early spring, the gear had to function in very cold air temperatures.

'We needed equipment that could be manipulated and operated by someone wearing gloves and we also had to try to keep equipment warm, or at least warm it up before it was deployed to gather data,' Tony says.

MSS staff on the SIPEX voyage were responsible for operating and maintaining equipment at sampling stations; from jiffy drills, ice corers and generators, to a Remotely Operated Vehicle that was lowered through a hole drilled in the sea ice, to map the distribution of microscopic ice algae that live in and on the underside of the ice.

They also deployed a range of trawl nets between ice stations, including the Surface and Under Ice Trawl (SUIT) and other plankton nets. During SIPEX the SUIT was used to collect krill from under the sea ice, to aid research into the ice-associated food web.

Tony says there are plenty of challenges supporting science programs in the Southern Ocean. The weather and conditions are usually demanding but there are other, often unexpected, challenges.

'For example, a scientist from another country might turn up a few days before a voyage departs with equipment that we've never seen before,' he says.

Twelve-hour shifts are the norm while a cruise is underway, and work can go on for six or more weeks continuously. There is little rest even when the team returns. Much of the six months between shipping seasons is taken up with the servicing, calibration, design, construction, purchase and installation of equipment to be used on the Aurora Australis or on small boats. Many projects take a long time to complete, with a great deal of liaison, planning and discussion undertaken before any work is started.

'The Aurora was designed and built as a resupply and research vessel and does not have all the capabilities of a full-time research vessel. It takes a lot of work and sometimes some creativity to rearrange the deck equipment and set things up to support the specific needs of a unique scientific voyage,' Tony says.

The team also liaises with P&O Polar and contractors regarding the design and installation of new instruments, refurbishment of laboratories and writing new software to suit particular voyage needs.

Tony says the work of the MSS requires people with a unique combination of skills and availability. He says it’s often quite difficult to find staff, but the work does attract students, recent graduates and recently retired people keen to apply their skills in a different arena.

'The skills needed to work in science support roles are quite different to those required in industry. Finding someone with the technical skill is not such an issue, but they need to be able to consult and communicate effectively with scientists, be willing to work long hours for many weeks at sea, and have a genuine interest in scientific discovery.'

Jill Butterworth
Information Services, AAD

Deep sea hits the headlines

The deep sea video footage collected during the CEAMARC voyage was of immense scientific interest, but it also captured the imagination of the general public. Underwater footage and news of giant sea spiders, coralline organisms and deep sea fish were featured in print, television, radio and the internet for months after the voyage returned.

Dr Martin Riddle appeared on ABC TV and radio news in all states and the voyage was reported on SKY News, ABC America, CNN, BBC, National Geographic and a number of other international networks. Dr Riddle was interviewed by Earth and Sky, a science media company whose interviews are heard more than eight million times each day around the world on more than 1000 radio stations, including Voice of America and Sirius satellite networks.

Shortly after the footage was released, the search term ‘giant sea spiders’ shot to the top of Yahoo’s search engine ranking index and was hailed ‘an international internet sensation'.