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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

RV Celtic Explorer Venture Survey: Day 4

Date: 19/07/2011
Time: 0430h (UTC)
Position: 48 deg 12.30' N 22 deg 00.36' W
Wind speed: 20 knots

We ran into rough weather on Sunday night, with the wind gusting at more than 40 knots and NOAA (the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) reporting average seven-metre swells in our area.  Those conditions forced us to pause our passage and turn the ship into the weather for several hours.  But although conditions were challenging for those aboard, our tying down of equipment proved secure, and we were able to resume course for the Mid-Atlantic Ridge once the seas abated.

Since then we have made steady progress in calmer seas, and expect to arrive over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge on Wednesday afternoon.  Once the seas had calmed, we also held a routine emergency drill.  Everyone reported to their “muster point” in response to the ship’s alarm system, and practised donning lifejackets and immersion suits.

As we get closer to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, we’ve also been fine-tuning our procedures for collecting data and samples once we arrive.  This has involved meetings and discussions with members of the team who operate the ROV, and among members of the science team who will be sharing samples.  These preparations have created an air of quiet expectation in the labs aboard the ship, as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge draws nearer.

Follow our “student eye on live during the survey” at

Sunday, July 17, 2011

RV Celtic Explorer VENTure Survey: Day 2

Date: 16/07/2011
Time: 1830h (UTC)
Position: 52 deg 13.16' N 12 deg 14.88' W
Wind speed: 30 knots

We left the Galway area in the small hours of the morning and headed out into the North Atlantic, where we met lively seas. The swell has been around four metres today, and many of our expedition team have been acclimatising to the motion. But despite the pitching of the ship, Jimmy and Lou in the galley have still conjured up tasty meals for everyone.

After lunch, Bramley Murton from Southampton gave a talk about the geology of our destination: the mid-ocean ridge. The mid-ocean ridge is a 65000 km chain of undersea volcanoes that runs around the globe like the seam on a tennis ball. The volcanoes form where the huge plates of the Earth's crust are moving apart, which happens in the Atlantic at about the same rate that our fingernails grow. The lava erupting from the volcanoes of the mid-ocean ridge creates new crust to fill the gap between the parting plates.

What happens at the mid-ocean ridge shapes our world, but all the details of the geological processes occurring there are still not clear. Seventy years ago, no-one even knew the extent of the mid-ocean ridge, despite it being our planet's longest geological feature. It was only when scientists started comparing echosounder traces from ships crossing the oceans that they realised there was a vast mountain range beneath the waves. Today our journey is taking us there, to the edge of creation of the Earth's crust, to find out more.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

RV Celtic Explorer VENTure Survey: Day 1

Date: 15/07/2011
Time: 2000h (UTC)
Position: 53 deg 09.67' N 09 deg 36.53' W
Wind speed: 16 knots

We have spent today completing our final preparations, before we head offshore from Galway.  Once we're out in the North Atlantic, we will be on our own: no service engineer is going to visit us if we have a problem with any equipment, so we've been making sure that everything is in working order, and that we have any spares that we might need.

With a voyage of exploration such as ours, we need to know exactly where we are before we can map places where no-one has been before.  So our checklist has included calibrating the underwater navigation system for our deep-diving remotely-operated vehicle (ROV), the Holland-1.  Like any modern vessel, the RV Celtic Explorer uses pinpoint-precision satellite navigation.  But those GPS signals do not reach the deep ocean, so we use an additional sonar beacon system to track the ROV relative to the ship during its dives.

The remotely operated vehicle ROV Holland 1

In the evening, we launched the ROV on a test dive.  One of the tasks for this dive was to test and calibrate the multibeam sonar system, which can map the seafloor in fine detail.  We're very grateful to the Geological Survey of Ireland for providing us with vital data, through the INFOMAR Programme, to complete that calibration test and prepare for the voyage ahead.

Our journey to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge will take around three-and-a-half days.  Although the weather over our target area looks good at the moment, we're expecting some rough seas on the way there.  So another important task has been tying down all our equipment securely--from the computers in the "dry lab" to the microscopes in the "wet lab"--ready for any rocking and rolling.

Once our final checks are complete, we'll be leaving the Galway area overnight, bound for the undersea volcanoes of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Life in 'Inner Space' - Joint Mission to Film Deep Ocean Vents Sets Sail

The mission, led by Dr. Andy Wheeler of University College, Cork (UCC), will be investigating life at 3,000 metres below the surface of the sea on the ‘45o North MAR hydrothermal vent field’ using the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Holland 1. These vents, which spew mineral rich seawater heated to boiling point by volcanic material in the earth’s crust below, are home to a rich variety of marine life that thrives in complete darkness on bacteria fed by chemicals.

Patrick Collins from NUI Galway’s Ryan Institute will lead Ireland's marine biological team investigating this unique ecosystem, which could tell us not only about how life might have evolved on other planets, but may also be a rich source of new biochemical processes with valuable medical and industrial applications.

“This expedition offers us the first opportunity to investigate mineral deposits and vent animals in this unexplored and important part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge,” said Dr. Bramley Murton of the UK's National Oceanography Centre at Southampton (NOC), who first discovered the location of the vents on an expedition aboard the UK research vessel RRS James Cook in 2008, and who is now leading the mineralisation study on the expedition. “Nothing is known about the hydrothermal vents, their mineral deposits or the life they support on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between the islands of the Azores to the south and Iceland to the north. Because this part of the ridge is trapped between these islands, vent animals may have evolved in isolation and be quite unique from elsewhere.”

The ROV Holland 1

Patrick Collins, in collaboration with Jon Copley of the NOC, will catalogue and characterise the species found at the vents.  According to Patrick, “We hope to find a whole community of previously unknown species, increasing our understanding of deep sea biogeography. There is potential here to put Ireland on the global map as a serious player in deep sea science. This is all the more timely with the exploitation of deep sea and hydrothermal vents for precious metals and rare earth minerals now a reality.”

Another objective of the mission is to investigate the rich deposits of deepwater corals on the Porcupine Bank’s ‘Moira Mound’, which has already been designated as a Special Area of Conservation.  These corals, which are very delicate and grow extremely slowly, are highly susceptible to damage by deepwater trawling and mineral dredging operations. Dr. Andy Wheeler, Chief Scientist of the Expedition, is a veteran of four previous ROV surveys to coldwater coral mounds.

Dr Andy Wheeler and Dr Peter Heffernan of the Marine Institute
at the RV Celtic Explorer in Galway docks yesterday

This mission is supported by the Marine Institute under the 2011 Ship-Time Programme of the National Development Plan. “This project is a perfect example of how strategic funding can pump-prime world-class marine research led from Ireland into new and exciting areas with tremendous potential for future sustainable development,” said Dr. Peter Heffernan, Chief Executive of the Marine Institute. The research is also supported by the National Geographic Society.

The mission carries geochemists, marine biologists, marine geologists, marine geneticists and technicians from Ireland and the UK as well as a three-person TV crew from National Geographic. They will spend 25 days at sea and will be posting a regular blog here on Blogger.

Undiscovered ‘alien’ life forms that thrive without sunlight in temperatures approaching boiling point may soon come to light thanks to a groundbreaking Irish-led marine research mission aboard the national research vessel RV Celtic Explorer which set sail from Galway, Ireland yesterday (Wednesday 13th July).  The voyage is being filmed for the National Geographic Channel for inclusion in an upcoming series about the ocean.

The mission team alongside the RV Celtic Explorer in Galway Docks