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I spent my formative years living by the beach, so the idea of being able to swim unhindered by lungs that need air to absorb oxygen was a fantastical one. Yes, I daydreamed about being a mermaid.

 

And, a few years ago, I discovered that mermaids were more than just an object of my imagination, or of myth and fairytale: they were real. Well, at least they were in the form of compound constructions for curiosity cabinets and travelling sideshows...

 

There are two types of 'mermaids' in natural history: the monkey fish and the 'jenny haniver':

 

As the name suggests, the monkey fish is comprised of the head and torso of a monkey and the tail of a fish, often with additional papier-mâché elements plus wood and wire for structure and support. The jenny haniver is constructed from a guitar fish (part of the Rhinobatidae family of rays) and has been fashioned since at least the 16th century, initially in the image of the lethal basilisk before (by way of dragon, devil and angel) taking on a more human form and being presented as a mermaid.

 

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The mermaid of myth and legend, as depicted by painter John William Waterhouse (left), and mermaids of "reality", aka monkey fish, belonging to the British Museum (top right, © The Trustees of the British Museum) and the Horniman Museum (bottom right).

 

 

Ollie Crimmen, the Museum's fish curator, who also has a bit of a soft spot for mermaids, says it's a shame we don't have a monkey fish at the Museum, but was keen to discuss with me the two jenny hanivers held in our stores:

I think when people look at these things with modern eyes they think "how can people believe it?"

 

[But, in centuries past] when somebody went over the horizon in a ship they were more out of touch than astronauts are today. When they came back, if they came back, there was a huge expectation: "you must have seen something fantastic, you must have brought something back". There was a pressure to have seen marvellous things. It might sound mad to us, but it was the sheer pressure of the expectation of what you've seen once you'd gone over the horizon.

 

And those who had not been on the journey, who had not seen fantastic, foreign things, were willing to believe whatever was presented to them as fact. For how could they know any different without having ever seen it in the flesh themselves? Remember my mention in a previous blog about the 'legless bird of paradise'?

 

On the other hand, nature does come up with some very real, very strange creatures. Consider the platypus: when it was discovered in the 18th century many scientists had difficulty believing that its mix of reptilian and mammalian features could be genuine.

 

The Museum has one quite big jenny haniver which measures 54cm in height, and another 'more quaint, smaller one' that's much older, Ollie says. He's not sure of their origin, but suggests that Museum scientist Peter Dance 'maybe had a go' at making one.

 

The suggestion is not completely off the mark. In his book Animal Fakes and Frauds, Dance describes buying a jenny haniver in London's Soho around the 1960s or 70s. Perhaps this is the specimen now in our collection.

When I first began gathering material for this book, I found that jenny hanivers were still being made. I bought one in London. According to the proprietor of the shop in Soho, whence I obtained it, it was said to have come from the Gulf of Mexico. It was, he said, a very good selling line, and I know it did not take him long to sell the others he had.

 

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The Museum's large jenny haniver specimen, front (left) and back (right). It measures 54cm tall and 29cm across.


 

There is no definitive answer as to where the name jenny haniver originates, although many cite 'Anvers' (the French name for Antwerp), as a source, as it was on the coasts of Belgium and Holland that these mermaids were said to have been caught.

 

Dance's book also includes a passage from Australian ichthyologist Gilbert P Whitley describing how jenny hanivers are made:

...[by] taking a small dead ray, curling its side fins over its back, and twisting its tail into any required position, a piece of string is tied round the head behind the jaws to form a neck and the ray is dried in the sun. During the subsequent shrinkage, the jaws project to form a snout and a hitherto concealed arch of cartilage protrudes so as to resemble folded arms. The nostrils, situated a little above the jaws, are transformed into a pair of eyes, the olfactory laminae resembling eyelashes. The result of this simple process, preserved with a coat of varnish and perhaps ornamented with a few dabs of paint, is a jenny haniver, well calculated to excite wonder in anyone interested in marine curios.

 

What is presented as the face of the jenny haniver  is actually the underside of the guitar fish. The ray's real eyes (located on its upperside) are sometimes obscured by curled pectoral fins. Ollie says:

Some people think it's dark, but it's a part of cultural history, of natural history.

 

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Another jenny haniver specimen, which featured in the Museum's 2010 exhibition, The Deep.

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Today I am observing the fieldwork methods of Museum scientists Jo Wilbraham (algae, including seaweed) and Mary Spencer Jones (bryozoans). We depart on the boat from St.Mary's to St. Agnes at 10.15am in calm waters, under clear blue skies.

 

St. Agnes is a beautiful island, with many interesting locations to collect specimens. We arrive at low tide, which is ideal for finding a diverse range of seaweed and bryozoan specimens. Jo chooses a beach 10 minutes walk east of the quay, where it is possible to wade far out. It takes a while, and some skilled rock climbing to reach where we are going but once we arrive at the tidal interface the diverse range of species is quickly apparent. We see a wide range of seaweeds, sea anemones and polychetes patiently waiting for the tide to come back in and relieve them from the stress of exposure to the mid-day August sunshine.

st-agnes-seaweed.jpgJo Wilbraham examines seaweeds great and small at the beach on St. Agnes.

 

Jo seems quite happy with the spot and comments on the range of species whilst pulling collecting bags and knife out of her pocket and rucksack to begin collecting, making the most of the low tide. The method of exploring and collecting are surprisingly similar to the methods that I use when working in the landscape or on a residency, although the selection criteria and motivation differ considerably. Some of the specimens collected are Furcellaria, Bifurcaria bifurcata and Palmaria palmata.

 

By this point my walking shoes have flooded after being submerged in shin deep seawater and I am inspired to draw some of the collected species on dry land. I am also preparing for the drawing workshop of creative morphology (a method inspired by Goethe’s ‘Delicate Empiricism’) at Phoenix art studios in the evening.

seaweed-field-drawing.jpgDrying out my feet and drawing seaweed specimens on the beach.

 

The free drawing workshop is fully booked, and attendees will be almost exactly half Museum scientists and half St.Marys residents or visitors. Due to the demands of fieldwork some of the Museum scientists are late, which means they have a bit of catching up to do. The workshop builds up observational drawing techniques that prepare the individual for a creative exploration of the morphology of the specimen.

 

Creative morphology drawing workshop

 

The group produce some very interesting drawings and discussions. One scientist remarks that they did not expect drawing to have method, rather that it was something they associated with scientific work. This point was important as it helped the scientist to acknowledge artistic research and methodology.

 

Another scientist remarks that drawing helped them to identify important characters of the specimen, and to engage with it. This was helpful as it led to a discussion of the values of drawing and photography/SEM technologies in scientific work. We end the workshop by considering the relationship between the practice of creative morphology and creative evolutionary processes. 

herbarium-sheet-specimen.jpgSpecimens collected at the beach on St. Agnes are arranged on a herbarium sheet, ready for entering the Museum's collections.

 

After the drawing workshop I put a few questions to Jasmin Perera, an entomologist at the Museum:

GA: Do you feel the method helped you to 'know' or think about the specimen in a new or different way? If so, could you try to describe this difference?

JP: Yes the method did make me think a lot more about the specimen. It made it far more memorable structurally. There are parts that I would never have thought of analysing so much that I now know exist, which is great because I would feel far more confident in identifying the specimen if I came across it in future.

 

GA: Do you feel that the method helped you to deepen your engagement with the specimen?

JP: I think I did engage a lot with the specimen, however I feel I get a similar experience when identifying flies under the microscope as the keys we have to follow go into details as little as the length and direction of the little hairs on their body.

 

GA: Do you think this method could be useful in your scientific or artistic work? If so, how?

JP: I would find this method useful in a scientific environment as it would really make me remember any specimen I came across. Especially by pulling the specimen apart, figuring out all the bits that put it together.

 

After the drawing workshop I visit the Museum field station at the Garrison, St.Mary’s, where I find Jo sorting through the day's collections, soaking and pressing before carefully arranging on a herbarium sheet. The sun is setting, the team is tired and tomorrow awaits...the marvellous world of insects!

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson, an artist and PhD researcher who accompanied Musuem scientists on a field work trip to the Isles of Scilly between 17 and 23 August 2013.

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As you’re reading this I’m flying across the Atlantic home, to what I hear is a sunny London! I’ve had an amazing experience following the scientists as they look for new species and experiment with REX in the waters around the Bahamas.

 

The scientists will have a lot of work to do when they get back to the Museum with all their samples. They will be busy checking to see if the species they have found here in the Bahamas are actually undescribed and new to science and we'll keep you updated with any results.

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed following the blog as much as I have enjoyed writing it. Highlights for me have been seeing the amazing footage that REX was sending back to the control room, helping the scientists sieve for worms in the mangroves, sharing in their ups and downs as they looked for the experiments and, of course, waking up with an amazing view every morning!

 

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Above: Our office for the last 10 days – not bad

(Click images to see them full size)

 

Now it’s time for the credits… there are lots of people to thank for making this happen!

 

Firstly to Stephen, Martin and Honor for allowing me to spend 10 days out of the office. To everyone in the Learning department for their support but especially my fantastic colleagues in the Nature Live team – Jo, Ana Rita, Natalie and Tom.

 

Extra special thanks to Tom and Natalie for hosting the shows so professionally and dealing with any technical problems so gracefully – I bet the audience had no idea what was happening behind the scenes! Also to Verity Nye, who came up from Southampton, and Museum scientist Geoff Boxshall who were our anchors in the studio during the live-links. Geoff, great news, we collected you a sample from Hatchet Bay and I have a big bruise on my leg to prove it!

 

Thanks to Adam and the special effects team for making sure the live-video-links back to London worked so smoothly.

 

To Jonathan for setting up the fantastic live-chat sessions and to Grace for organising the entire schools component of the fieldtrip. It was so great having that interaction with pupils.

 

In the Bahamas we have a lot of people to thank – firstly Janet and Harvey Higgs and the rest of Nick’s family for being so hospitable – no request was ever too much, and we requested a lot!

 

Big thank you to our fantastic skipper Howard, not only was he a great Captain, he’s also a great cook too – preparing freshly caught fish while we were busy with REX...

 

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Above: Howard making lunch as everyone looks on

 

Thank you to Kendra from the Bahamas Marine Mammals Research Organisation who supplied the whale bones that we sank for our experiments. I bet the sharks are grateful for that too!

 

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Above: Kendra joined us to see what we had done with her donated whale bones!

 

The science team have been amazing and so accommodating to my requests; whether that was asking to interview them, taking part in Nature Live and other events or my personal favourite, ‘how do you spell that again’?!

 

Big thanks to Diva, Leigh, Nick, Helena and Gill for being great field companions. Thanks to Tony for always being at the ready with the camera and making those live-video-links happen from this end.

 

Finally, a big thank you to Adrian for making this whole fieldtrip possible! I’ve had a fantastic time following science as it happens in the field – capturing their discoveries and sharing them with you - and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it!

 

I asked Adrian to sum up the trip for us…

 

 

Keep in touch with the Field work with Nature Live community and subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog and you’ll receive updates whenever a new post appears.

 

And remember, you can meet more Museum scientists every day at Nature Live events held in the Museum’s Attenborough studio at 14:30 (and also at 12:30 at weekends and holidays).

 

I hope to see you at a Nature Live event soon!

 

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Above: Team Bahamas (except Tony, who was taking the photo!)

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Today we invited the local school children to SWIMS (Spanish Wells Institute of Marine Science, remember!) to have a look at what we have been up to. They really enjoyed sieving for worms in the sand but I think they thought we were all crazy for wearing summer clothes in March!

 

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Above: Diva and Leigh leading a sieving workshop on the beach

 

While we were sieving with the pupils we came across a tiger shark tooth. Yet more evidence that they are abundant in these waters ... but we still haven’t managed to actually see one on this field trip!

 

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Above: More evidence of sharks - but still no sighting

 

After the schools children left the team got back to work looking at samples under the microscopes. The big question on everyone’s lips was whether the goat skull we found yesterday had any Osedax on it.

 

The scientists spent a long time studying the skull and debating the findings. They can see tubes on the skull that belong to a worm but that doesn’t necessarily have to be Osedax.

 

Adrian is not convinced that it’s Osedax at all. He believes they may have found another polychaete worm from the family Terebellidae.

 

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Above: Terebellidae found on the goat skull

 

However, if it is Terebellidae then it shouldn’t be living on a goat skull. Usually they live in limestone crevices but the goat skull may be close enough for it to call home. Basically you can see how sometimes discoveries can create more questions than answers! I don’t think we are going to get a conclusive answer before we get back to the Museum.

 

We only have one day left here in the Bahamas but here are some of the great pieces of footage that REX has shot over the last week.

This is the moment that REX went over the Grand Bahaman Canyon that goes down to 3,000m …

 

 

For me, some of the most amazing footage we have seen was when REX went through the purple bacteria in Ocean Hole. Also, look out for when REX meets the goat skull…

 

 

Tonight is our last night in the Bahamas. We’re saying goodbye in an appropriate manner – a drink on the beach at sunset!

 

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Above: Our last sunset in the Bahamas

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Today we had an early start to begin the 200 mile round-trip to Ocean Hole on south Eleuthera.

 

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The inland lake called Ocean Hole

(Click images to see them full size)

 

Ocean Hole is an inland lake, a mile from the oceans, that rises and ebbs with the tides. When we arrived we attracted a large gathering from a local school and Nick spoke to them about what we were doing with REX and why.

 

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Above: Nick doing some educational outreach

 

Amongst the crowds that had gathered was Ronald Horton, who is the administrator of Ocean Hole, and I asked him his thoughts…

 

 

 

 

REX went in and immediately descended to 40m. He didn't see any mermaids but when it was looking at the rubbish littering the floor of Ocean Hole it stumbled upon a goat skull.

 

REX carefully brought the skull up to the surface and, although it’s not a whale bone, everyone was excited at the idea that Osedax maybe be living on the bones, albeit in the most unlikely of places. It would have definitely made up for the earlier setbacks with the sharks!

 

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Above: Helena inspecting the goat skull

 

The team will now spend the best part of tomorrow trying to determine whether the worms found on the goat skull are Osedax. I’ll keep you posted!

 

When REX went in for a second time he descended to 38m. As he ventured down he saw this amazing purple glowing layer. From where we were sitting in the control room it looked very similar to the aurora. We nicknamed it the purple haze but what it is actually a type of bacteria.

 

None of the team had ever seen anything like this before. We didn't record any difference in temperature as REX descended so Adrian thinks that this purple haze may indicate the point when freshwater and sea water meet. Either way, the bacteria looked amazing on film…

 

 

 

 

Tomorrow we’re going to be analysing the goat skull under the microscope to see if we can find any evidence of Osedax. If the worm is on the goat skull it wouldn’t have been how we expected to find it, but every cloud…

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After collecting so many samples over the last few days it was now time to sit down and sift and sort through all of them to see what species we found.

 

Diva spent the morning looking over the bits of wood that were brought up yesterday. She picked off as much of the fauna as she could and put them directly into salt water and alcohol to preserve them for the journey back to London. So far she has found crabs, shrimps, polychaetes and some hydroids growing on the worms.

 

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Above: Diva is trying to pick off all the animals she can see living on the wood

(Click on images to see them full size)

 

She also put the pieces of wood out to dry in the sun so that she can take those back with her and put them in the CT scanner. She will be looking for wood-boring molluscs but won’t have the results for a while.

 

We all got slightly preoccupied by seeing a grass snake in the bushes...

 

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Helena spent most of the day going over the only piece of whale bone the shark left behind. She has found lots of polychaete worms living on the bones but no evidence of any whale fall specialists, like Osedax, yet.

 

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Above: Helena shows us on the big screen the creatures she is looking at under the microscope

 

Helena has already spotted 2 potential new species of worm from the mangrove samples and once she's back at the Museum she’ll be able to say for certain. If they are, then that leaves one more thing. The name…

 

 

Tomorrow we're hoping to go over to Ocean Hole on Eleuthera to drop REX down to 200m and hopefully see lots of animals using the HD camera. Maybe sharks too. We’ll also be collecting some copeopods that Geoff asked us to collect for him from the Attenborough Studio during the Nature Live event last week! All weather dependent, of course...

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Our last Nature Live event from the Bahamas was a bioblitz with Helena and Diva. It was great fun as we trawled the beach, against the clock, to find whatever we could for the family-friendly audience.

 

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Above: Helena, Diva and 1 talk to the Nature Live audience in London

(Click images to see them full size)

 

With yesterday’s shark incident still at the fore of our minds, we set out to recover the 2nd package and to try and find and recover the 3rd package.

We made visual contact with the 2nd package late last night but it was getting too dark to bring it to the surface. So we returned to the spot today and hauled it up on to the boat.

 

The shark damage was obvious but we got a piece of good news…it hadn’t taken all of the whale bones! We found a small bone still attached to the basket which lifted everyone’s spirits. Helena was particularly excited – even though it was a small piece she will be analysing it under the microscope for any evidence of Osedax.

 

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Above: Helena was very pleased that some of the whale bones had been recovered

 

After lunch we moved on to the 3rd and final package which was perched on the edge of the Great Bahamian Canyon. If it wasn’t were we left it six months ago then it had slipped into the abyss, far out of REX’s reach. It took nearly 2 hours to locate it and the control room was full of people waiting to catch a glimpse of it in the blue. This is the moment Nick spotted it…

 

 

After the initial excitement of finding the package we quickly realised that it would be a challenge to recover. At 55m deep, it was too deep for divers to go down to get it so we had to make sure that REX had a good grip on it so as it didn’t drop as it came to the surface. We carefully raised it to the surface and Nick and Leigh jumped in to retrieve it.

 

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Above: Despite its appearance we were very glad to see our basket!

 

Using REX meant that we knew, even when the experiment was still on the sea floor, that it too had been visited by a curious/hungry shark as all the whale bones were missing. But this time all the wood was still attached to the baskets. We now know that sharks, if given the choice, don’t like eating wood! The best bit was seeing how many lionfish were surrounding the basket…

 

 

That wrapped up our time on the boat and it was great that we managed to recover all 3 experiments using REX, it’s just a shame that sharks got to the them before we could!

 

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Above: This sums it all up beautifully. Lesson #1: Sharks like whale bones.

 

Tomorrow will be a long day of microscope work but the day after we head out to Blue Hole to drop REX down to nearly 200m. Will we get to finally see sharks instead of just their bite marks?!

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Welcome to...

SWIMS.jpg

(Click images to see them full size)

 

We are all waking up really early - around 6am when the sun comes up. After breakfast we loaded up the golf carts with spades, sieves and sampling jars and we were ready to go panning for worms. We ventured out to the mangroves on the other side of the island, where we were relieved to find that the wind was much less intense.

 

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Above: Helena is ready to find some worms in the Bahamian sand

 

Once we reached the marina we had to get out to the sampling site and what better way than to kayak. Then we had to do some serious digging, put the muddy sand into a bucket and kayak the samples back to the shore. To be fair, Nick did a lot of the hard work!

 

It was then up to Diva and Helena to sieve through all the mud, this may sound easy but when you’re looking for tiny creatures you have to be very precise and it can take quite a while.

 

 

We found a few large creatures, such as sea cucumbers and a giant anemone, but the really exciting stuff is only visible under the microscope. Helena was really excited as she thinks she has found a new species of the marine worm Ophryotrocha under the microscope! Obviously we can't tell for sure until we get back to the Museum but it's great to think that it might be so.

 

 

Above: Could this be a new species of the marine worm Ophryotrocha?

 

One of the other highlights of the day was that Gill got to see Cassiopeia jellyfish for the first time in the wild!

 

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Above: Cassiopeia made Gill’s day!

 

After lunch (which was rice and beans!) we spent a good part of the day testing REX before we send him into the deep later in the week. Adrian and Leigh set up a mission control in a repurposed bathroom on the beach and we sat and watched REX manoeuvre through the shallow sea grass beds.

 

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Above: Yes, Adrian is sitting on a toilet!

 

Here is when REX met a lionfish…

 

 

On Thu 8 Mar (which is tomorrow for me as I write this) we'll be linking live to the Attenborough Studio so do join us if you can!

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What do you study at the Museum?

I study polychaetes (marine segmented worms), from the deep sea and from whale-falls and hydrothermal vents. Polychaetes are related to earth worms but usually a lot prettier and more colourful. I am describing new species that we discover in the deep sea samples, and I sequence their DNA to see how they are related to each other.

 

The DNA sequences can also be used to study how these worms move around in the sea. It can be useful to know if they can go anywhere else if their current habitat becomes inhospitable or if they're stuck in one place and doomed when bad things happen.

 

What are you most excited about finding/seeing on the trip?

If we get those whale bones up from the sea floor, I am sure that there are undescribed worm species on them. I am very curious to see what they look like, and also to bring them back to the lab and sequence their DNA to see where they belong among the other worms from similar habitats.

 

Where have you been previously on field work?

In my undergraduate studies I spent one year on Svalbard studying Arctic Biology, and we went on several field trips both on sea and on land. And then I've been to New Zealand, Chile and on an expedition to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and on several expeditions at sea back home in Sweden.

 

What is your favourite thing about going on field work?

My favourite thing is getting the samples! It's a lot like looking for treasure; whenever the sampling gear comes aboard we're all very excited to see what is brought up with it. Even a heap of mud can cause quite a shuffle when everybody wants to see what's in it and pick out the things they work on.

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What do you study at the Museum?

I study animals that live on dead whale skeletons and how this affects the formation of whale fossils. I am particularly interested in the Osedax bone-eating worms!

 

What are you most excited about seeing on the trip?

I am really excited about seeing what kind of animals live in the deep water of the Bahamas. I grew up nearby and have always wondered what was living beyond the shallow water that I could reach while diving.

 

Where have you been previously on field work?

I have been to California, Japan and Sweden on field work before to study what happens to dead whales in these areas.

 

What is your least favourite thing about going on field work?

I’m really lucky be to able to travel to so many places as part of my job and I love it. But my least favourite thing is the preparation involved. Going to another country and bringing back samples involves a LOT of paperwork and planning, especially if you’re dealing with specially protected animals like whales.

 

Is anything worrying you about the trip?

I’m a little worried about not finding all of the experiments we prepared last time we were in the Bahamas. We dropped one very near an underwater cliff so let’s hope it didn’t fall down into the abyss!

 

What advice would you give to someone going on field work for the first time?

Remember that other people have different cultural backgrounds with different norms that you should respect. This is easy to forget when travelling to English speaking countries.

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What do you study at the Museum?

My main interest is deep-sea biology and in particular the diversity, evolution and ecology of the marine annelid worms - the polychaetes. These are incredibly diverse in the deep-sea, the least explored and largest ecosystem on the planet.

 

What are you most excited about seeing/finding on the trip?

Although our main science goal is the retrieval of a set of important colonisation experiments, I am secretly most excited about taking our little underwater robot 'REX' to its deepest depth rating - 200m. I would like to take it below the warm surface waters into the cooler, darker deep waters - the twilight zone - to observe the marine life using this new low-cost deep-sea approach that we are pioneering on this trip.

 

Where have you been previously been on field work?

I have been fortunate enough to be involved in field work all over the world. Mostly it has been in rather cold places (the Southern Ocean, the Antarctic and the North Sea). I am looking forward to a tropical trip for a change!

 

What is your best experience whilst on field work?

The best experience has been our first discovery of the enigmatic Osedax worms whilst on a sampling trip in Sweden. It was incredible to find these bizarre animals living so close to a marine lab, in shallow water. It reinforced to me how little we know even the accessible parts of our oceans.