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IMAS Investigator voyage blogs

3/3/16 Weekly Report #8 – Chief Scientist Professor Mike Coffin

Mike CoffinThe passage of time seemed to accelerate as we traversed the Great Australian Bight and approached Tasmania. The science+arts party was busy wrapping up shipboard analyses, packing samples, finalizing shipboard data and metadata compilations, synthesizing initial results, and packaging equipment for off-loading. 

We sailed up the Derwent on a glorious summer day, Saturday 27 February, and our 51-day voyage came to a sudden end. Welcoming family and friends on the CSIRO wharf made for numerous poignant reunions for the many Hobartians among the ship's complement; such gratification was delayed for the interstate and international contingent. Demobilisation was mostly completed the day of our arrival. 

Photo: The final approach to Hobart at the end of IN2016_V01 on 27 February 2016. Credit: Pete Harmsen.Approaching Hobart

By the numbers, IN2016-V01 – Heard Earth-Ocean-Biosphere Interactions –on the Kerguelen Plateau tested some of RV Investigator's limits. Despite spending a week less at sea than originally planned due to a medical evacuation, our 51 days constitute the longest Marine National Facility voyage to date. We traveled about 16,000 km, conducted 51 stations (including 41 trace metal rosette and 11 in situ pump deployments), identified 100+ acoustic plumes emanating from the seafloor, videoed 30+ locations where bubbles emanated from the seafloor, undertook two cross-plateau water column transects, successfully retrieved eight dredges from seaknolls and a debris avalanche, mapped approximately 7,000 km2 of Kerguelen Plateau seafloor, and witnessed an eruption of Big Ben on Heard Island. All in all, in some of the most remote and tempestuous reaches of the global ocean, RV Investigator proved to be the highly capable, state-of-the-art, multi-purpose, dedicated research platform that Australia has needed for many decades.  The ship enables researchers to address Australia's most pressing marine scientific challenges, and given the high societal relevance of these challenges, operations should be supported for 300 days per year instead of the current 180.

Image: Final track map for IN2016_V01.

HEOBI track

Planning, executing, and supporting IN2016_V01 involved not only the 60 voyage participants, but also many, many people ashore: MNF, ASP, and Aspen Medical staff; Australian Research Council, Australian Antarctic Division, Australia Council for the Arts, and international funding body employees; university and agency support personnel; and the family and friends of the shipboard complement. 

We are extremely grateful to everyone for their incredible contributions to the success of the voyage! And we all look forward to future voyages aboard RV Investigator.HEOBI crew

Photo: Shipboard science+arts party of 40 configured to spell 'heobi,' choreographed by James Batchelor. Credit: Tom Watson.  


24/2/16 Weekly Report #7 – Chief Scientist Professor Mike Coffin

Mike CoffinA full week of transit towards Australia through the Roaring Forties and the horse latitudes offered many opportunities, including time to finish initial data and sample analysis, to ponder initial results, and to plan the papers and projects that will arise from the data. The majority of the dozen graduate students aboard will use data from this voyage as a significant part of their theses, and all have presented their work or proposed work to the science + arts complement at the daily afternoon seminar series.

Photo: The full science + arts complement aboard IN2016_V01. Credit: Tom Watson.

Investigator science crew

Further consultation with shore resulted in RV Investigator diverting from our course to Hobart to deliver our medical evacuee to Albany, which was successfully completed via the ship's fast rescue craft on 21 February. Everyone is greatly relieved that the patient now has access to tertiary medical care ashore, although it feels as if a member of the family has gone missing after 44 days together afloat. However, while we were still at full strength, the 40 scientists, students, and support staff assembled for this group photo on the foredeck in an inviting temperate zephyr, rather a contrast to the biting sub-Antarctic winds we'd been experiencing since mid-January.

As indicated, during the week we focused considerable attention on scientific and artistic outputs from voyage data and research. On 20 February the science + arts team assembled for an overview of initial voyage research and results across all disciplines, followed by breakout meeting in smaller disciplinary groups to develop ideas and plans for outputs. Two days later, the team met again to learn what everyone else had envisioned. No lack of ambition was evident: the team outlined plans for 44 scientific publications and nine arts exhibitions, performances, and forums. 

Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve, Kerguelen Plateau.
HIMI map

As we approach the end of the voyage, we are devoting substantial effort to preparing various reports required by three different entities. For the Marine National Facility, we are working on a Voyage Summary, a Chief Scientist Operational Report, and metadata forms. We focused most of our investigations within the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve, which surrounds these World Heritage-listed islands and includes other portions of Australia's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) on the Kerguelen Plateau. Due to the areas of the Kerguelen Plateau where we conducted our research, three permits from the Department of the Environment were applied for and obtained, and each of those - Antarctic Marine Living Resources Conservation, Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation, and Environment Protection and Management Ordinance – requires a report. And funding support from the Australian Antarctic Science Program requires submission of a Data Management Plan.

As we departed the Albany coast, heading into the Great Australian Bight toward Tasmania, we were treated to a spectacular lightning show. Bolts traversed the sky and struck the water around us throughout the evening and most of the night. We've experienced a variety of nature's elements during this voyage, and we still have some days to go! 

Photo: Lightning over the Albany region, Western Australia, taken from RV Investigator's fast rescue craft (FRC). Credit: Pete Harmsen.
Lightning at Albany

 


19/2/16 Associate Professor Andrew Bowie Blog - searching for source of Southern Ocean iron 

Assoc Prof Andy BowieTrace elements like iron are the building blocks of life for biological organisms in oceans, but with the Southern Ocean being one of the most iron-deficient oceans in the world, it makes it an extremely difficult place to sustain a healthy marine ecosystem.

The region north of Heard and McDonald islands on the Kerguelen plateau, however, differs from most of the Southern Ocean in that it's able to sustain large blooms of phytoplankton. So we're measuring the iron levels in the waters here to try to find out where the extra iron is coming from that makes this ecosystem healthier than others in the region.IMAS Investigator voyage

Our hypothesis is that the elevated levels of iron, particularly near the volcanic McDonald Islands, is partly being delivered by submarine volcanoes (hydrothermal vents) in the waters around the islands, and partly by volcanic ash from the erupting volcano mixing with active glaciers on Heard Island, and dispersing in the surrounding ocean.

RV Investigator makes light work of 60 knots near Heard Island. Photo: Pete Harmsen

If we can confirm this hypothesis (our results are looking pretty good so far) then it will have broader implications for the health and ecosystem vitality of the Southern Ocean.

Click here or on the image below to watch the YouTube video about the IMAS Investigator voyage's search for the source of iron in the Southern Ocean.

YouTube video on search for the source of iron

What we're testing

We're taking samples of the ocean's water and measuring the trace metals such as iron, copper, zinc, cadmium, and their more exotic 'isotopes', but it's not exactly a simple process.

They're found in such a low concentration (pico grams – that's 1 x 10-12g per gram of seawater) that we need to be extremely precise in our measurements. To put this in perspective, it's like trying to find a pinhead in 1000 Olympic swimming pools!

Because we're on a ship and surrounded by metal we need to take extra precautions, and use specialised equipment to prevent contamination of the seawater samples.

Our specialised equipment

TMR rosetteThe primary piece of equipment we use to take samples is a Trace metal rosette (TMR), which is a specialised piece of equipment similar to a CTD (Conductivity, Temperature and Depth) rosette, except it's designed to be as metal free as possible to avoid interfering with our samples, and where metal has to be used, it's of the highest quality, such as titanium bolts and pins and a powder coated aluminium frame.

Photo: Dr Kathrin Wuttig, A/Prof Andrew Bowie, Manon Tonnard, A/Prof Zanna Chase

The design revolves around a dozen 12-litre Niskin bottles manufactured with an internal Teflon coating, Teflon taps, and plastic coated springs located outside the bottles to reduce interaction with the samples.

And when we're not using the TMR, it sits under a plastic cover inside its own 10-foot container on the aft deck of the ship, helping to protect it against any contaminants on the deck and airborne emissions from the ship's stack.

Gathering the samples

We keep the Niskin bottles inside a special clean container laboratory we use for our trace metal work, and at the last moment before deployment we transfer them from the clean container and set them up on the TMR.

We deploy the TMR from starboard midships on a 'coring' boom using a non-metallic Dynex rope and a specialised trace metal friendly block suspended on the boom, which has a plastic drum which the Dynex rope passes through.
TMR deployment

While it's deployed the TMR can't communicate with the ship, so instead it works using an autonomous system we pre-program before deployment. A pressure sensor attached to the TMR triggers each Niskin bottle at pre-determined depths as the TMR is hauled back to the surface, allowing each deployment to gather 12 samples at different depths at the same location in the ocean.

Photo: GoPro shot of TMR deployment in a foggy ocean

This technique has the advantage of showing how the iron concentration changes through the water column (the vertical structure of the water), which can help us to see how the iron may be delivered through volcanic ash, from glaciers on the islands or through hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean.

When the TMR is safely secured (winds sometimes reach more than 80 knots here, so it can be quite a dangerous environment) we immediately cover the taps on the Niskin bottles with plastic bags and carefully carry them to the clean container and place them in holding racks.

Keeping things clean

Once they're on board, we need to continue our work in our clean container laboratory, an exceptionally clean environment where the air has been filtered using HEPA (high-efficiency particulate arrestance) filters to remove all the dust particles.
In the lab

We sub-sample from the Niskins into smaller plastic bottles that have been thoroughly acid washed in the laboratory prior to the voyage, and are transported on the ship filled with dilute acid. This dilute acid is poured out, then the bottles are rinsed three times with the filtered seawater collected from various depths in the water column, after which they're ready for sampling.

Photo: Manon and Zanna in the clean lab

When we're working in the clean container we wear plastic suits, Crocs, and vinyl gloves to further protect the samples from any contamination from handling the bottles and sampling equipment. After the samples are collected, they're acidified on board to ensure that the metals stay in solution, then a suite of metals are analysed at sea (including iron), with the rest stored for later analysis in the lab ashore.


17/2/16 Weekly Report #6 – Chief Scientist Professor Mike Coffin

Mike CoffinOur research over the Kerguelen Plateau came to a premature conclusion this week due to the need for medical evacuation of one of our shipmates. The closest tertiary hospital to Heard Island is in Fremantle, ~4,100 km distant, or about eight days at RV Investigator's flank speed. Thankfully, after two days of transit towards Fremantle, the patient had recovered sufficiently for us to alter course to Hobart, albeit on a rhumb line instead of a great circle so as to have the option to visit a port along the Great Australian Bight should the patient suffer a relapse. Indeed we are fortunate to have a fully qualified emergency medical specialist on board, augmented by the ability to communicate with medical specialists ashore, in this remote sector of the Southern Ocean.

A research highlight of the week was imaging bubbles emanating from the seafloor north of Heard Island using a deep tow camera system. Although we don't yet know what gas forms the bubbles, the emanations correspond to the locations of plumes in the water that we've imaged acoustically around both Heard and McDonald islands. Just over 100 of these plumes have appeared in our acoustic data. Deep tow camera

Photo: Deep tow camera system being deployed by ship's crew and Marine National Facility staff. Credit: Pete Harmsen.

RV Investigator's acoustic systems are among the most sophisticated and capable in the world's research fleet. Medium and full ocean depth multibeam sonars provide bathymetric data with an accuracy of ~0.2% of water depth as well as backscatter data; multifrequency and multibeam echosounders deliver water column data; and a sub-bottom profiler system images sediment and rock beneath the seafloor.

Photo (below): Shipboard operations room where acoustic and other data are monitored, edited, quality controlled, and visualised. Watchstanders: University of Tasmania PhD student Sally Watson (left), University of Tasmania graduate Nic Polmear (center), and Australian National University graduate Anna Bradney (right). Credit: Pete Harmsen.

Ops roomConveying scientific research to the general public has become increasingly important, and we have devoted significant effort to the media on this voyage. Prior to and during the voyage, we have participated in many media interviews and generated considerable content for social media. A surprise 'hit' has been an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) report with an embedded YouTube video that has been viewed more than 150,000 times (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-02-01/scientists-witness-big-ben-volcano-erupting-remote-heard-island/7130556). This week also marked a media milestone for RV Investigator, a live television interview with the ABC.ABC live setup

Photo (right): Team for inaugural RV Investigator live TV interview: University of Tasmania Prof Mike Coffin (left), Marine National Facility's Hugh Barker (center), and photographer/videographer Pete Harmsen (right). Credit: Brett Muir.

 As we steam towards Hobart, we're busy processing, analyzing, and organizing data and samples; writing reports; preparing equipment for off-loading; and planning post-voyage research projects and outputs. The end of the voyage will mark the final time that the 40 scientists, artists, students, and support staff will be together, but the professional and personal relationships and bonds forged during our time at sea together will endure. 


12/2/16 Sally Watson blog - Hotel California

Sally WatsonThe weeks are going by so quickly at the moment. We have passed the half-way point and the transit home is just around the corner. We are frantically trying to decide which part of this massive plateau we should survey next. It would take a lifetime to complete the entire thing.

I will miss looking out the window and gazing at Heard Island- I wonder how many people get to say that... Definitely one of the voyage highlights (the photo below has been the view from my office for the past few weeks). Last night we also got lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the southern lights - Aurora Australis. We got a call from the bridge at 2 am saying there was an Aurora and I've never moved so quickly in my life. We stampeded up seven flights of stairs to the bridge just in time to see the glimmering green southern lights dancing in the sky. After I got my breath back, it was incredible.Heard Island

As for voyage operations, we have been intensively sampling a region to the north of Heard Island that hosts a field of plumes. We get very strong signals on the acoustic sounders in this area – which looks pretty much like a flame coming up from the ocean floor. But we want to know more about what this could be made up of and why we get such a strong signal. So, we have spent good chunk of time gathering water column data in an attempt to try and get a hydro-chemical signal in this area, and figure out what these flame-like features could be. It doesn't help that the weather in the part of the world is extremely temperamental, one moment its blowing a gale at 45 knots, then the wind calms down to 8 knots, then back up to 50 knots. It's a bit spooky. It's the sixth time we have been to this area to try and get some sampling done before the wind picks up. Inevitably the wind keeps howling back and we have to check out...but we keep coming back. This region has been dubbed 'Hotel California'.

Apart from toing and froing around Hotel California, we plan to head further to the eastern side of the plateau. We crossed over a field of seamounts on our way to Heard and McDonald Island (3 weeks ago now), which are just too interesting to resist. So we will go back to survey those before we begin our two-week transit home through the roaring forties.

Sally Watson is an IMAS PhD candidate studying the evolution of East Gondwana breakup and the influence of the Kerguelen plume. This blog is reproduced from Sally's LinkedIn site.


10/2/16 Weekly Report #5 – Chief Scientist Professor Mike Coffin

Mike CoffinInvestigations around the McDonald Islands and Heard Island continued, both underway acoustics and over-the-side deployments, during the week. Remote sensing of the seafloor and sub-seafloor illuminated potential seafloor hydrothermal system targets for conductivity-temperature-depth and trace metal rosette casts, in situ pump deployments, bio-optical package deployments, drifter launches, and seafloor sampling.

In situ pumps collect suspended and dissolved particulate samples from a designated depth beneath the sea surface. On this voyage, we are particularly interested in iron and its origin - from hydrothermal, glacial, erosional, or other processes. We have deployed the pumps at various distances from plumes emanating from the seafloor that we've imaged acoustically, as well as at reference stations well away from the islands.

ISP 

Photo: In situ pump alongside RV Investigator, handled by the Australian Marine National Facility's Mark Lewis. Credit: Pete Harmsen.

RV Investigator carries several devices for sampling the seafloor, including rock dredges, gravity corers, piston corers, multi-corers, and Smith McIntyre grabs. The last are especially useful for quickly assessing the nature of the seafloor, including whether or not it's suitable for coring. We deployed a grab on multiple occasions, and so far the seafloor close to the islands has proven to be unsuitable for coring.

SmithMcGrab

Photo (left): Smith McIntyre grab being recovered near the McDonald Islands. In the background are: Meyer Rock – left; Flat Island – center; McDonald Island - right. Credit: Pete Harmsen.

Witnessing an ongoing eruption of Big Ben whenever Mawson Peak was visible has been an unanticipated highlight of working around these islands, and we've also observed vapor emanating from parts of McDonald Island. 

Several fumaroles, vents from which volcanic gas escapes into the atmosphere, are visible on the flanks of McDonald Island, indicating continuing magmatism there.

FumarolesPhoto: Fumaroles (centre of image) on the south side of McDonald Island, 6 February 2016. White objects along the slope descending from right to left are penguins. Credit: Pete Harmsen.

On Friday 5 February we celebrated Hump Day, as in over-the-hump - the mid-point of the voyage. We'd been at sea 29 days, with 29 to go. More than a few of the shipboard complement have told me that bidding adieu to Heard Island and McDonald Islands will be tinged with sadness. Despite their inhospitable appearance, they are majestic and resplendent in their own ways and have become familiar companions. We feel extremely fortunate to have seen these rarely observed and even more rarely visited World Heritage-listed islands from all angles at sea level in a broad range of light and weather conditions.

9/2/16 Associate Professor Zanna Chase blog

Zanna ChaseCompared with some of the crew and scientist on board I'm hardly an old sea dog, but I have spent a fair bit of time on research vessels. This is my 15th oceanographic research voyage, and my third time to the Southern Ocean. It's even my second time on R/V Investigator - I was on a trial voyage in April 2015. Still, this voyage is special for me in many ways. For one, it's my longest voyage. It's by far the longest voyage for me since I've been a mum, and the longest time I've been away from my boys (both 8). That's been hard, and I'm sure no walk in the park for my husband back at home either. It's also the largest number of scientists I've ever sailed with. I'm really enjoying the diversity of research going on, and how we're all working together to a common goal. Even more unusual for me are the number of non-scientists on board - I was on one voyage where there was a photographer, and another with a teacher, but I've certainly never sailed with a dancer or a visual artist (we have both) as well as two photographers. It's been great having them all on board. And I've never been on a voyage with a doctor; definitely makes me feel better having him here with us in the middle of nowhere.Investigator at sea

Since my first voyage almost 20 years ago some things have changed, but others are exactly the same. Back then we got email twice a day, with absolutely no attachments allowed. Phone calls were an extreme extravagance. I remember a lot of fried food and not much else to eat. Hard hats were optional. We still used a CTD much like the one we're using on this voyage, to collect water samples for most analyses. We still spent a lot of time filtering water in one way or another. But if you wanted uncontaminated samples for trace metal analysis you had to either take a zodiac away from the ship and use a bottle at the end of a pole to scoop surface water, or hang individual (very heavy) bottles on a non-metallic line, lower the line to the desired depth, and send a 'messenger' down the line to close the bottle. Very time-consuming compared to the Trace Metal Rosette system we have now. 

I'm really enjoying my time on Investigator. The ship is amazingly quiet compared with others I've been on, and very stable. Sometimes it's hard to believe it's too rough for operations, until you look outside and see how big the seas actually are. I also really appreciate the crew on here. They are by far the most helpful, friendly, and skilled crew I've sailed with, and they're also engaged with the science we're doing. The labs are spacious, the food is great, and of course, the views of Heard and McDonald Islands have been hard to beat.


9/2/16 Nic Polmear blog 

Nic PolmearOver the past week, I have watched as Australia's only active volcano erupts above the Southern Ocean. 'Big Ben' is Australia's most remote island (4,500 km southwest of WA) and highest peak (2,745m). The peak dominates Heard Island, one of the two islands the CSIRO's RV Investigator is currently posted, on its two-month Heard and McDonald Island expedition. We have been fortunate enough to get a few days of clear skies and calm waters, which allowed us to see the entirety of Big Ben from its glacial flanks to Mawson's Peak, a rare phenomena in itself. The odds of seeing the top of Heard Island through the cloud is minute, but to witness lava being exhumed from its peak, onto a glacier, was something else. This is the first time I have ever seen an active volcano, or even a glacier (slightly embarrassing for someone who's studied Antarctic Science and Geology), and it has been an incredible experience for a (relatively) young scientist, and a memory I will never forget.

In November 2015, I was offered a position on the 2016 voyage to Heard and McDonald Island aboard the RV Investigator, with only a few months notice.  It didn't leave much time for preparation, but it was already a no-brainer. The purpose of the scientific voyage is to identify and classify underwater volcanic systems, which are hypothesised to be supplying iron and other micro nutrients to surface waters, necessary to host phytoplankton production.

Earlier, in 2014, I undertook a project to remotely identify potential sites for active volcanism on the seafloor within close proximity to the Heard and McDonald Islands. This was achieved by attaching devices to elephant seals which measured temperature, depth, time and location of the seals' dives. From these data I was able to identify regions around Heard and McDonald Island with unusually high temperatures possibly influenced by submarine volcanism. My results were used in the voyage plan, which largely motivated me to undertake the two month long commitment.

As a first time sea-goer, and the youngest scientist on the voyage, I was both nervous and excited about life at sea. As expected, the first week was challenging, with adjustments to eating, sleeping and working patterns. On top of that was adapting to the constant motion of the ship, which had a few grappling with seasickness. I settled in soon enough, and I am now at work within the ship's operations room, monitoring the sonar equipment and constant stream of acoustic data. Multibeam systems allows us to visualise the seafloor bathymetry and features within the water column, aiding in the identification of any active subsea volcanism. I also help out with rock sample collection via dredging. It has so far been an amazing opportunity to learn how geophysical work at sea is conducted, and to witness the outcomes.

We are now approaching the halfway point on this expedition and considering what we have seen already, I can only be excited about the rest of the trip. Being on the CSIRO's new vessel, RV Investigator, with some of the best scientists in the world, is something that I never thought would happen. I consider myself extremely privileged, and am incredibly thankful to those who gave me this opportunity.

Nic Polmear is an IMAS student and geophysicist.


3/2/16 Weekly Report #4 – Chief Scientist Professor Mike Coffin

Mike CoffinCircumnavigations of the McDonald Islands and Heard Island, with stops during favorable weather conditions for over-the-side work, fully occupied the week. Seafloor mapping and sub-seafloor profiling with acoustics paved the way for targeted conductivity-temperature-depth and trace metal rosette casts, in situ pump deployments, bio-optical package deployments, deep camera tows, launching of floats and drifters, and seafloor sampling.

The search for hydrothermal systems on the seafloor persists. Acoustic data continue to show candidate systems in the form of jet-like anomalies ascending from the seafloor through the water column for tens of meters, yet so far we've not been able to confirm such systems, either visually using the deep-tow camera or by other means. We will carry on with our efforts.Tephra

We have recovered volcanic rock and sediment from the seafloor around the McDonald Islands by dredging and grab sampling. A dredge yielded significant pumice, a light-colored and extremely porous volcanic rock that forms during an explosive eruption when a gas-rich froth of magma solidifies rapidly.

Photo: Pumice recovered from the seafloor near the McDonald Islands, with University of Tasmania PhD student Jodi Fox. Credit: Pete Harmsen.

The ten geoscientists aboard RV Investigator, and for that matter the other 50 folks aboard the ship, had been keen to see Big Ben, the volcanic massif that dominates Heard Island, and its highest elevation, Mawson Peak - 2,745 meters above sea level - and we weren't disappointed. The clouds lifted and the sun shone for several viewing opportunities on different days, and the ship's bridge and decks were crowded with sightseers during these times.

Big Ben on Heard Island 

Photo: Big Ben volcano on Heard Island from RV Investigator on 1 February 2016. Credit: Pete Harmsen.

Mawson Peak was erupting whenever we could see it during the week, the first ground/sea observation of volcanic activity on Heard Island since 2007. Ships seldom visit Heard and McDonald islands, and persistent cloud cover means that satellites can image Big Ben only infrequently. In addition to vapor emanating from the summit, we saw lava flowing from Mawson Peak down the flank of Big Ben on top of a glacier, quite a rare sight.  Big Ben erupting 

Photo: Mawson Peak on Big Ben, Heard Island, from RV Investigator on 31 January 2016. Lava is flowing down the left side of the mountain over a glacier, producing steam. Credit: Pete Harmsen.

Groundhog Day marks the conclusion of this week, and in some ways yet another circumnavigation of these islands is reminiscent of the film by that name. However we are constantly acquiring new and stimulating data, and the remarkable landscapes, seascapes, and weather change by the minute, so going around the islands in polygons always remains fresh!


1/2/16 Sally Watson blog - Have you Heard?

Sally WatsonWe said our goodbyes to McDonald Island yesterday as we sailed east towards Heard Island. We have been sampling and mapping like crazy around McDonald Island for about a week now. It's astonishing to think that the ocean floor in this part of the world is being mapped for the very first time on this voyage. One of my jobs whilst on shift is to monitor the seafloor data as it comes in to make sure that we don't approach very shallow waters. So my eyes are usually glued to the computer screen watching the never-before-seen seafloor unveil itself, as we circumnavigate the islands.

We are seeing evidence for extensive volcanic activity in the form of seamounts around both Heard and McDonald Island. We have gathered sediment from the ocean floor, which has brought up volcanic material: pumice (a very light porous rock which is quickly cooled very gas rich lava) and volcanic glass (lava that cools so quickly as it interacts with water that it doesn't form a crystal structure, it has a jet black glassy appearance). Analysing the chemistry of these sediments and rocks will help us to understand the magmatic history of these volcanoes.  

Photo: Sally Watson
Sally Watson Heard Is

As we approached Heard Island (aka Big Ben) we got glimpses of Mawson's Peak (the summit) in the far distance. We had been told we would be very lucky if to get a chance to see Heard Island in its entirety, as it is usually blanketed in clouds.  Having low expectations we neared the western flank of the island: completely uncharted waters. This morning I woke up to find that we were only a few kilometres offshore. I gazed out the porthole, to see the sun shining brightly into the operations room- this is not a normal occurrence.

I grabbed my camera and bolted outside to be confronted with Big Ben, and looking down on me was Mawson Peak, with a stream of smoke billowing from the summit. It was erupting.

Its moments like this in your life where you have to kick yourself to make sure you're not dreaming... In front of me was Australia's one and only volcano, and at 2,745m also Australia's highest peak, in the middle on the southern Indian Ocean thousands of kilometres from home. You can see a recent lava flow from the top, a dark river of lava cutting through the pure white glacier. The glacier turns from a crisp white colour at the peak, to bluish grey at its base. Not many people get to experience this sort of action on a work trip.

I love my job.

Sally Watson is an IMAS PhD candidate studying the evolution of East Gondwana breakup and the influence of the Kerguelen plume. This blog is reproduced from Sally's LinkedIn site.


27/1/16 Weekly Report #3 – Chief Scientist Professor Mike Coffin

Mike CoffinLand Ho! This week marked our first sightings of the McDonald Islands and Heard Island, the foci of this voyage. During the first half of the week, we successfully completed the first phase of our research program, a 12-station biogeochemistry and physical oceanography transect extending from the Australia-Antarctic Basin across the deep western boundary current and Central Kerguelen Plateau to just north of Heard Island. We then moved on to the second phase, intensive seafloor mapping that started with multiple circumnavigations of the McDonald Islands.

McDonald and Heard Islands are Australia's only known active volcanoes, and due to their rather inaccessible locations, little is known about them geologically. Of the two, the McDonald Islands are the more inaccessible and perhaps dynamic. Their morphology has changed repeatedly between relatively infrequent observations from transiting ships, and the primary volcanic rock type – phonolite – differs markedly from the basalt that forms most of Heard Island. Totaling only 2.5 km2, the McDonald Islands sit on a significantly larger foundation, which is the focus of our seafloor mapping.Prof Richard Arculus at McDonald Is

Photo: McDonald Island (right) and Meyer Rock (left) from RV Investigator on 24 January 2016, with Prof Richard Arculus in the foreground. Credit: Pete Harmsen.

A key tool in our search for undersea hydrothermal systems associated with the McDonald and Heard Islands is the trace metal rosette, or TMR, which is deployed to recover water samples from specific depths in the ocean. The TMR collects seawater with minimal trace metal contamination for analyses in both shipboard and shore-based laboratories. Iron is the primary trace metal of interest in our research program.

Photo: The TMR being deployed over the side of RV Investigator. Credit: Pete Harmsen.TMR deployment

The demographics of our 60-strong ship's complement came to the fore during three shipboard birthday celebrations over the past week. During our 58 days at sea, we will celebrate 12 birthdays. The average age of the entire ship's complement is 41 (range 21-71), of the 13 PhD-level scientists 48 (range 32-67), of the 14 students 34 (range 24-52), and of the 11 science support staff 42 (range 21-71). With respect to gender, of the 40 science/arts and science support staff, 40% (16) are female and 60% (24) are male. The balance of genders on this voyage is by far the closest to equality that I've experienced in 32 research voyages spanning five decades.

Australia Day coincides with the conclusion of this week's report, and the able master and crew of RV Investigator bestowed Australiana upon everyone to start the day, decked out the galley with patriotic decorations, served traditional Australia Day fare for lunch and dinner, and even arranged a pre-dinner outdoor/indoor barbecue here at 5°C at 53°S! Although this is my fourth celebration of Australia Day in the vicinity of Heard and McDonald Islands, it is my first of this millennium, and a memorable one indeed.


25/1/16 Sally Watson blog - Old McDonald

Sally WatsonAfter spending a few weeks with nothing but the sky, the sea and some birds surrounding us, I awoke to find McDonald Island had appeared on our doorstep.

The wind was howling at about 40 knots and the waves were capped with white foam. McDonald Island sits to the west of Heard Island and is the smaller of the two. Looking up at the rocky debris covered flanks of this solitary island in the middle of the southern ocean, you can see the crater rim, where the Earth periodically opens up and releases its fury. We even saw smoke coming from the top of the cone! Incredible to witness such active volcanism is the middle of nowhere. The last time this volcano erupted is thought to be in 2005.

 One flank of the volcano has collapsed and formed a shallowly dipping slope in the otherwise steep cliffs of the island. On the sides of the volcano you can actually see the cooled lava, which appears as vertical columns of dark rock stacked closely together (columnar jointing for those geoscientists reading this).

We have been observing lot of signals in the water column that suggest this area is rife with hydrothermal activity. This is also a spot where one of our elephant seals measured upwards of 30°C on its thermometer.
The island is riddled with wildlife. Albatross, petrels, penguins and seals on all sides of this ship. 

Photo: Sally WatsonMcDonald Is

There are heaps of volcanic looking features scattered around McDonald Island, which we plan to sample in the coming days.
The weather has become a bit rougher over the last few days. Waves coming over the back deck and we are having really strong wind. Last night we hit a massive wave and the ship rolled 25° to the port side, then swooped back and rolled starboard 15°, so a total swing of about 40°. Equipment went everywhere, the toasters ripped themselves out of the wall, and a bowl of jelly that was sitting on top of the kitchen bench was strewn about the galley.

We will be mapping the seafloor surrounding McDonald Island, until the weather calms down a bit, and then we will get sampling … towing deep water cameras, sampling the water column, and dredging rocks.

Watch this space.

Sally Watson is an IMAS PhD candidate studying the evolution of East Gondwana breakup and the influence of the Kerguelen plume. This blog is reproduced from Sally's LinkedIn site.


20/1/16 Weekly Report #2 - Chief Scientist Professor Mike Coffin

Mike CoffinThe Roaring Forties are in our wake - we've crossed the Southeast Indian Ridge and the polar front - and for the next month we'll be working in the Southern Ocean's Furious Fifties. The long transit from Fremantle to the start of the first phase of our investigations on the Kerguelen Plateau concluded on 18 January. Into the second week of transit, we continued to test equipment and gain experience with shipboard systems and procedures. As always, we're continuously acquiring multibeam sonar, backscatter, and sub-bottom profiler data. And we continue to launch robotic floats for the international Argo program, the Australia-India Strategic Research program, and the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling (SOCCOM) project, as well as drifters for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Global Drifter Program.

The day after sailing from Fremantle, we commenced a daily floating seminar program straddling the change in science watches at 1400; most members of the science party are standing 0200-1400 or 1400-0200 watches.  Typically two people speak for 15-20 minutes each, including questions and answers. The seminars provide an opportunity for us to introduce ourselves, our expertise, and our research plans for the voyage to one another. This is particularly important because this voyage is the first time the multidisciplinary team has been co-located, and many people haven't met each other previously. Everyone on the ship is welcome to attend the seminars.

A critical tool for identification of hydrothermal plumes emanating from the seafloor is the remotely operated towed vehicle (ROTV) Triaxus, which hosts multiple seawater property sensors. Towed approximately a kilometre behind RV Investigator, it is typically programmed to 'fly' a regular sawtooth pattern ranging between a few meters water depth and a maximum depth of 350 meters. The new vehicle acquired in 2015 is now fully tested and fully operational.

Triaxus deployment at nightPhoto: Triaxus being deployed at night. The carbon fiber vehicle is 1.95 m long and weighs approximately 200 kg with sensors. Credit: Pete Harmsen.

Another array of sensors important for assessing the biological response to hydrothermal plumes is a bio-optical package that is lowered over the side of the stationary vessel to a depth of a few hundred meters. Data from this package illuminate biological productivity in the uppermost ocean where light can penetrate, the so-called photic zone, and is crucial for calibrating satellite-derived chlorphyll data for the ocean's surface waters.Bio-optical package deployment 

Photo: The bio-optical package being deployed, with bio-optics scientist Dr Bozena Wojtasiewicz in the foreground. Credit: Pete Harmsen.

Phase one of our four-phase research program is an estimated 3.5-day, 12-station transect extending from the Australia-Antarctic Basin across the deep western boundary current and Central Kerguelen Plateau to just north of Heard Island. We're deploying the conductivity-temperature-depth (CTD) rosette and bio-optical package at each station, and the trace metal rosette at some stations. Four stations are now complete, and deployments are underway at the fifth.

Long summer days are conducive to our work program, morale, and aesthetics. The 7.75-hour night between 17 and 18 January was bookended by a magnificent sunset and a glorious sunrise, our first views of either celestial event since entering the Roaring Forties. May the sunshine, light wind, and gentle seas augur well for the coming month of work in the Furious Fifties.


25/1/16 Sally Watson blog - Buoy, what a transit!

Sally WatsonWe have travelled about 4,400 km since we left the sunny shores of Western Australia. We have been sailing now for just over seven days on transit to Heard Island. Still no land in sight.

We expect to arrive at the Kerguelen Plateau, an under water plateau about 3,500 km long, in the next few days. Heard and McDonald Islands reside atop the Kerguelen Plateau. The image I've attached above is a 3D bathymetric map (underwater topography) of the Kerguelen Plateau showing Heard and McDonald Islands, looking to the north-west (Beaman & O'Brien, 2011).

We have trialled a few of the water testing instruments, some of which have been successful. We deployed some long-term oceanographic buoys (called ARGO floats) that will test the temperature and salinity of the ocean over the next five years. These buoys bob around in the ocean at an allocated depth (for example 1000 m), and then at given intervals they go down to 2000 m water depth, and sample from depth to the surface. When they reach the surface they send the information by satellite to shore. They can also measure pH, nitrate levels, and oxygen, and because they drift around passively, they provide information about ocean currents.

In the Southern Ocean there are hundreds of ARGO floats recording information continuously, and providing excellent data for oceanographers and biogeochemists. You can look up all of the current ARGO floats around the world that are working to collect data about the ocean (just search for: active ARGO floats), there are currently about 3,918 ARGO floats in the oceans world wide. The information from these floats contributes to our understanding of atmosphere to ocean carbon exchange, as well as variations in the ocean in time and space. So in short, they are great tools for advancing our knowledge of oceans.Sally Watson map

Since leaving Australia, we have mapped several small underwater volcanoes and crossed the South East Indian Ridge (the spreading centre that separated Australia from Antarctica). We have also started a table tennis competition.

Prior to leaving we identified target regions on the Kerguelen Plateau that may host hydrothermal activity. We will be searching in areas that are thought to have recent volcanism. In addition, an army of helpful elephant seals were equipped with temperature and depth measuring devices from 2006-2013. As the seals swim and forage around Kerguelen, they record data and this gives us an idea of the range of temperatures we can expect to find. If we see seals with elevated temperatures (that is greater than about 3°C at depths below 100 m) then this may be an indication there is hydrothermal activity in the region.

Next stop: Kerguelen Plateau.

Sally Watson is an IMAS PhD candidate studying the evolution of East Gondwana breakup and the influence of the Kerguelen plume. This blog is reproduced from Sally's LinkedIn site.


13/1/16 Weekly Report #1 - Chief Scientist Professor Mike Coffin

Mike CoffinRV Investigator voyage IN2016_V01 – Heard Earth–ocean–biosphere interactions (HEOBI) departed Fremantle on Friday 8 January, bound for the Heard Island region, southern Indian Ocean, on a 58-day mission. The overarching objective of the voyage is to test the hypothesis that hydrothermal systems associated with active underwater hotspot volcanoes supply iron to the Southern Ocean that nourishes phytoplankton blooms.

I first had the idea for this investigation in 2008, and in the intervening eight years, my colleagues and I have assembled a multi-disciplinary, international team of researchers and students, submitted multiple applications to various agencies and authorities for support and permissions, been granted shiptime and science funding, and obtained requisite environmental permits. Thus the voyage is the culmination of nearly a decade of planning involving scores of people.     Mike Coffin and Andrew Bowie

The total shipboard science and science support team first assembled for mobilization of the voyage at Fremantle's Victoria Wharf, where RV Investigator was berthed, from 6-8 January. Mobilization activities were nonstop and intense for two-and-a-half days, mirroring the enthusiasm and anticipation of all voyage participants. 

Photo: Professor Mike Coffin (left) and Co-Chief Scientist Associate Professor Andrew Bowie in Fremantle.

We number 60 souls on this voyage. That total includes 29 members of the science party, 11 science support staff, and 20 ship's crew. The 40-strong research team is a veritable United Nations, with 14 nationalities from four continents represented. This diversity reflects our efforts to assemble the best scientific team globally to achieve our research objectives as well as the boundless nature of the global ocean.

We embarked from Fremantle Friday afternoon with an extra person, a technician who was undertaking final underway tests of RV Investigator's navigation system. He was run ashore by a ship's boat after the tests were deemed successful, and we began the long transit to the Heard Island region late that afternoon.

During the first half of the transit, from 8-12 January, we've tested some of the scientific equipment that will be deployed in the Heard Island region, including conductivity-temperature-depth (CTD) and trace metal (TM) rosettes, a bio-optical package, in situ pumps, and the remotely operated towed vehicle (ROTV) Triaxus. Anti-cyclonic and cyclonic eddies were the location of these tests, yielding valuable oceanographic data. We have also launched robotic floats for the Australia-India Strategic Research program and Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling (SOCCOM) project as well as drifters for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Global Drifter Program.  En route, we also collected multibeam, backscatter, and sub-bottom profiler data over a site scheduled to be drilled during International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) Expedition 369 in 2017.  


9/1/16 Sally Watson blog - Let the Investigating begin...

 Sally WatsonWe set sail at 1 pm on the 8th of January from a balmy 36°C day in Fremantle, WA. We have had delightfully calm seas since our departure and we do not expect our luck to continue as we approach the Southern Ocean.

Over the duration of this voyage we expect to travel distances greater than 15,000km (that is over a third of the circumference of the Earth, or equivalent to the going from Sydney to Perth about four times).

As we journey from Fremantle, to the middle of the furious fifties we will collect geological, geophysical, biological, hydrological and chemical data, before making the nine day journey back to the shores of Tasmania. This truly is the epitome of a multidisciplinary voyage. Not only is there a range of scientists, but also there is an artist, a choreographer and a videographer on board, not to mention the engineers, IT team and navigational officers, making an extraordinary patchwork of specialists bound for Australia's most remote volcanic island.Investigator in Fremantle

We are constantly collecting data as we go. We continuously send acoustic transmissions (called pings - that is actually the technical word) through the water column to the seafloor and measure the return signal (and don't worry, the frequency we use won't disturb whale migration). It will however, tell us about the water depth and give an indication of the type of rock found at the bottom of the ocean in real time. We can map a section of ocean floor about 4km across (depending on the depth of the water). We can also measure activity in the water column by detecting gas bubbles. Gas bubbles can either be an indication of a release of gas from the seafloor, or can be the acoustics detecting the swim bladder of the fishes as they pass below.

Check out this ABC article published this week to learn more about what we are doing and stay tuned for more voyage stories.

Sally Watson is an IMAS PhD candidate studying the evolution of East Gondwana breakup and the influence of the Kerguelen plume. This blog is reproduced from Sally's LinkedIn site.

Authorised by the Executive Director, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies
March 3, 2016