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Atlantic coccoliths blog

Archive for November, 2008

Land ahoy

Jeremy, Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

Nearly over. After six weeks the cruise has ended, at least as far as we are concerned. We have got to the Falklands safely and docked at Port Stanley. The Falkland Islands invite rather mixed comments on ship but they looked beautiful in the early morning sun as we arrived, and to remind us of the naval history a frigate was anchored in the entrance to the sound.

Heading towards the Falklands

Heading towards the Falklands

HMS Iron Duke in front of Mount Tumbledown

HMS Iron Duke in front of Mount Tumbledown

The last few days have been rather dominated by weather as we have gone through a series of gales alternating with calm sunny intervals. The sunnier intervals allowed some sampling in these waters and we have been rewarded with green soupy water rich in diatoms, copepods, some rather unpleasant gelatinous gunge and a few whales.

A whale's tail

A whale’s tail

Coccolithophores have remained common and surprisingly diverse but the layers of different populations are no longer distinct – they now look pretty similar throughout the water column.

The zooplankton samples have been interestingly variable. Plankton net sampling has been cancelled several times but the samples which did come in made a very useful addition to the material I have been collecting.

However, science stopped completely a couple of days ago so that we could get packed before arriving in the Falklands. The first task was tidying up and sorting out the samples. There is a decent haul – we have collected from about 70 stations and accumulated about a thousand filter samples, four hundred microscope slides, eighty bulk organic samples for DNA analysis, two hundred filter samples prepared with a special buffer to allow labelling of cells with fluorescent markers, and hundreds of pteropods and ostracods picked from the zooplankton.

After that the main dismantling of the labs and packing up took place on Saturday afternoon, just as we hit particularly bad weather. To make things worse we were sailing south whilst the wind and waves were coming from the west, which made for rather chaotic ship motion and the occasional spectacular roll of up to 30°. So packing was sporadically interrupted by the need to grab something solid with one hand while restraining what ever one was trying to pack with the other hand. The rolling also added a certain something to the end of cruise dinner, and especially to the dancing in the crew bar.

A wash bottle serving as an inclinometer to record the ship's motion, although I did not manage to photograph it during any of the larger rolls

A wash bottle serving as an inclinometer to record the ship’s motion, although I did not manage to photograph it during any of the larger rolls

So that is about it for the cruise, although we will have a lot of work to do on the samples over the next few months. It has been a great experience, we have learnt an immense amount and had some excellent evenings. The RRS James Clark Ross is a fine ship and everyone from galley staff to the captain has made us welcome. It’s nice to see dry land but we will be sorry to say farewell to the ship.

Jeremy & Martine, Port Stanley.

Storms, albatrosses and our own CTD cast

Jeremy, Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

It’s Sunday 2nd November now, so only another week of the cruise, which is maybe just as well since we are running low on supplies for sampling, boxes to put them in, microscope bulbs, and energy. As we left the tropics we ran into a gale and a big swell, which set the ship rolling quite nicely and resulted in two of our sampling stations being cancelled – which was a bit disappointing but it did allow us to stop work and enjoy the sea. Standing on monkey island (i.e. above the bridge), as the ship rose in and out of big waves was very impressive. Then as a bit of a bonus our first albatross appeared.

Going through the gale - the James Clark Ross hitting a wave relatively firmly

Going through the gale - the James Clark Ross hitting a wave relatively firmly

The first albatross we have seen on the cruise

The first albatross we have seen on the cruise

Generally the number of birds is increasing as we leave the tropic and go into more fertile waters. The weather improved today and at lunchtime we were able to stop for our noon sampling station in relatively calm sunny waters and slowly gathered a little flock of petrels and albatrosses. Indeed albatrosses are beginning to get positively common.

Numerous birds watching the lunchtime water-sampling

Numerous birds watching the lunchtime water-sampling

Another albatross

Another albatross

Scientifically today was rather special for us. One of our prime objectives on the cruise has been to study the change in distribution of coccolithophore populations with depth. Our observations so far have suggested that, rather than there being separate near-surface and deep communities, there is a continuous succession of different assemblages with depth. Luckily for us there was also some ship-time available for additional science and the principal scientific officer, Malcolm Woodward, was able to arrange a separate CTD sampling mission for us. So, today after the regular noon sampling the ship stayed on station for another hour or so as the CTD and rosette sampler was sent back down for a special Natural History Museum sampling mission, collecting water every 12 metres from 275m to the surface. This means a late night beckons as we work our way through 260 litres of seawater.

Up it comes again, the sampler, this time with water just for us

Up it comes again, the sampler, this time with water just for us

Jeremy and Martine – 33°S 31°W

Representative objects

Jeremy, Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

We have worked our way across the southern Atlantic gyre sampling intensively as we went and have now left the tropics and run straight into a force 8 gale. This has stopped the science, so, there is finally time for us to catch up on the blog, starting with a little discussion of some objects representative of shipboard life.

The coffee carrier from the UIC

The coffee carrier from the UIC

The coffee carrier: The “Underway Instrumentation Centre” (UIC) where our microscopes are based is a nice dry air-conditioned environment, in contrast to the warm and wet labs below. Along with the microscopes are computers controlling various machines, and scientists tending them. Now, scientists need coffee to sustain them and coffee comes from the bar one deck up and quite a way along (see photo of ship). Carrying cups of coffee by hand is a bad idea, since the ship rolls and a golden rule on board is one hand for the ship and one for yourself, i.e. you have got to have a free hand to hold onto the ship. So, one of the most useful pieces of kit in the UIC is the coffee carrier which allows us to transport cups of coffee in total safety – it may not look very clever but on a rolling ship a hanging tray works perfectly. It is also a nice example of the economy of ship-life. There are no shops around so making things yourself is the way to go, hence objects like biscuit tins, rope and copper piping get re-used and workmanship is valued (look at the neat way the ropes are tied off).

The RSS James Clark Ross, showing the relative positions of the bar and the UIC

The RSS James Clark Ross, showing the relative positions of the bar and UIC

The scientist's beaker

The scientist’s beaker

The scientist’s beaker: Along with improvised construction another way to get things on ship is by searching and borrowing, and people are remarkably generous in lending each other stuff. This beaker was leant to me by Paul Mann from the Plymouth team, and it filled a severe gap in the arsenal of multi-purpose objects I remembered to bring with me. The little chap next to it is also Beaker, from the Muppets, in honour of whom scientists on board ship are generally referred to as “beakers”. So, our humble pyrex vessel is “the beaker’s beaker” and hence arguably the smartest thing on ship.

Scones similar to those made by our doctor © Wikipedia

Scones similar to those made by our doctor © Wikipedia

The doctor’s scone: The ship also has an impressive range of human resources, including our very own doctor, Nerys, who is responsible not only for our well-being but also for the ship’s official blog, or web diary. As part of her research for this she has been investigating the different parts of the ship, including the galley where she was put to work making scones. We had them for pudding at lunch recently. Very good they were too, just like my mother makes, or in the words of Alex (the third mate) marine-grade ballast scones.

Nerys' mother's crayons

Nerys’ mother’s crayons

Nerys’ mother’s crayons: Martine, I and the other scientists will be leaving the James Clark Ross when we get to the Falklands in a week or so. The officers and crew will be staying for three more months till the mid-cruise crew change. So our lovely doctor, Nerys, will be the only person staying on the ship until it returns to England in May. Which means she is away from home for eight months. Her mother was obviously concerned about this and has given her a series of date-marked parcels to open at Christmas, New Year and other such important dates, as the cruise progresses. Yesterday was the 31st of October and Nerys had a parcel containing, hallowe’en chocolates, a witch’s hat, and a set of face-paint crayons. The crayons looked innocuous but they provided the catalyst for some flamboyant artwork.

Evidence of the talent and ingenuity aboard: from left to right, Vas Kitidis (scientist), Nerys Lewis (doctor), Ben Tullis (the ship's IT specialist), Mike Gloistein (Radio Officer), Paul Mann, Mario Vera and myself

Evidence of the talent and ingenuity aboard: from left to right, Vas Kitidis (scientist), Nerys Lewis (doctor), Ben Tullis (the ship’s IT specialist), Mike Gloistein (Radio Officer), Paul Mann, Mario Vera and myself

Jeremy, South Atlantic