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The team supporting science at sea: the National Marine Facilities

By the NMF Team

Months before the RRS James Cook even arrives in Southampton to begin mobilising for the JC263 expedition to the Porcupine Abyssal Plain (PAP), preparations are underway. 

Dan Comben, Project Manager for the NMF Programme Team holds a meeting with the science party and heads of the technical teams to gather requirements and agree logistics. Over in Sensors and Moorings back at the National Oceanography Centre, the mooring designs are completed, and the team is readying all the hardware for the PAP moorings: acoustic releases, conductivity-temperature-depth (CTD) sensors, chain, buoyancy, and ballast. In the ROV hangar, the HyBIS tow camera is configured and tested to be ready for deployment. The Ocean Engineering workshop is busy preparing for multiple cruises at once, ensuring winches, refrigeration equipment, MilliQ water makers, mega-corer, heavy equipment and tools are ready for the tasks at PAP. The Ship Scientific Systems and Marine IT teams keep the ship systems continuously ready to support science through sensor calibrations and system updates.

Peter, Jack, and Marshall bring the mega-corer back on deck. Photo © National Oceanography Centre

The RRS James Cook arrives at the National Oceanography Centre and the quayside is a hive of activity. Wires are wound and equipment is loaded. Dan Comben oversees the mobilisation, deconflicting all the operations to make sure the tasks are completed smoothly and on time. The liquid nitrogen generator for freezing samples is installed and activated. The Ship Scientific Systems team set up the ship’s data acquisition systems, and double check that the required metadata is present and correct.

Dan and Jack prepare the mega-corer for deployment. Photo © National Oceanography Centre

Finally, the time comes to sail and deliver the objectives set for us by the scientific party. Each operation follows meticulous planning: every morning, Captain John Leask convenes the science-, technical- and marine teams to discuss the plans for the next 24 hours and any constraints arising due to weather, before each team heads out to prepare for their tasks.

Tom installs sensors to the PAP buoy tether before deployment. Photo © National Oceanography Centre

At 03:30, the Sensors and Moorings team of Tom Ballinger, Tim Powell, Dave Childs and John Clarke get up to deploy the deep CTD cast, collecting water samples at different depths below the ship and sometimes using the opportunity to test acoustic releases for the moorings. At 07:00, Juan Ward starts his shift, taking water samples from the ship’s underway system, checking gas consumption for the pCO2 system, checking the data acquisition of the ship’s suite of sensors and fixing any emergent IT issues. Dan Comben, Jack Arnott and Howard King take overlapping 12-hour shifts to prepare and assist over-the-side deployments, such as nets, traps and the mega-corer as well as helping with any mechanical requirements like welding and fabrication. Russell Locke and Emre Mutlu have set up the HyBIS control station, and after waiting for a week due to bad weather, the time has come for them to dive HyBIS for several nights of video surveys of ocean floor habitats.

Emre prepares the HyBIS control systems for a dive. Photo © National Oceanography Centre

In addition to the technical party is the crew of the RRS James Cook, each of whom play their own vital role to support science: the catering team led by Purser Paula McDougall keeping everyone well-fed and the ship clean and tidy, the deck team led by Chief Officer Iain MacLeod, planning and undertaking the navigation and top-sides operations and the engineering team led by Chief Engineer Keith Sneddon, keeping the ship’s vital services running: propulsion, sanitation, water, electricity generation.

Russel attaches a camera to the HyBIS. Photo © National Oceanography Centre

Every day at sea comes with new challenges, but with a good team and thorough planning, we do our best to overcome these and continue to deliver the cruise objectives. 

It’s the day before the PAP buoy deployment, the Chief Petty Officer (Science) Mark Squibb and Dan Comben review the back deck and discuss the plan to safely get this heavy and complex mooring into the sea. The sensor cage is ready; the chains are laid out on deck; the shackles have been welded. The weather forecast looks good.

The team is ready, and everything is in place to undertake this deployment tomorrow - one of the most complex operations here at PAP.

The team prepares the PAP sensor cage before deployment. Photo © National Oceanography Centre