Sunday, 31 August 2008

Fish trawl sampling

A few posts ago, I mentioned that I would let you know about what had been keeping us all so busy. The start of trawling meant lots and lots of fish (and other creatures) winding up on our decks, which needed to be identified to the lowest possible taxon (preferably to species).

The first step in processing a trawl is to pick them all up off the deck and do some preliminary sorting into "recognisable taxa" - which may often be more than one species. Buckets which have a lot of different species are carefully sorted into different species if at all possible; some require considerable care to ensure that two (or more!) similar looking species aren't getting "lumped" together. For many species, this takes a long time, particularly if you are not familiar with that particular group. In the past, I've mainly worked on identifying tropical and subtropical reef species, so tropical trawl species, particulary pelagic ones, are quite new to me. Fortunately, Sean was quite familiar with some of them, which helped, and I have a reasonable grasp of general families of fish, so can get to the right sort of area fairly quickly. Still, tricky specimens (individual fish!) can take over an hour to get to a point where you're happy that you've done a reasonable job of identifying it accurately.

After the identification is done, all the different species need to be weighed and counted, and important fisheries species should be measured too; fortunately, we have electronic measuring boards which make entering the length frequency data relatively quick.

The fish lab looking unusually tidy (just after we cleaned it on Saturday).

Preliminary sorting of the catch into buckets. (Photo courtesy Jens-Otto Krakstad)

Sometimes you get a lot of the same kind of fish. Only those buckets probably contain more than one species, so they'll need to be sorted again. Carefully.

The Captain of the Dr Fridtjof Nansen, Leif Olsen, stopped by to check on our progress and this prawn caught his eye.

Some fish are really hard. This is a whole bucket full of a genus called Bregmaceros. There are at least 3 species in the area, and telling them apart requires microscopic examination of the number of rays in the fins and also the number of transverse scale rows. (Yes, keys aren't even easy to use until you get au fait with some fairly technical language! And don't get me started on subjective judgements in keys like "moderately long"... Unless you wrote that key, chances are you have no idea what "short" or "long" is for that particular character!).

This is the ugly side of bottom trawling; essentially, you're bulldozing a track along the seabed, and catching anything in your way. Most of that pile is large basket sponges, and on top is a typically rather slow-growing gorgonian. Sorting out the catch in what was essentially a tropical reef station took us well over 12 hours. In commercial trawls, all the stuff you don't want is termed "bycatch"; in some fisheries, such as prawns, bycatch to catch ratios can be well in excess of 6:1 (6 kilos of other stuff to every kilo of prawns). If you'd like to learn more about more sustainable seafood choices you can make, people in South Africa could look at the Sustainable Seafood Initiative. Similar initiatives exist in many other countries. (Photo courtesy Arrie Klopper).

Are we done now?


After that, we have to take DNA and stable isotope samples; each individual specimen is photographed before the samples are taken and then it is preserved so that a physical specimen exists to which the genetic sequences and stable isotope signatures can be tied. This specimen is lodged in a collection for further study.

Note the little sample tag in each photo; using this, we can link the colour photo back with the actual specimen; before it is preserved, we tie this label to the fish so it doesn't go missing. The colour chart can help us correct the colours in the image to be more accurate.

As you can probably imagine, a few trawls like this would keep us busy for some time!

We're currently on station here doing a CTD cast. The current is so strong the wire is getting pulled out at a crazy angle. Raymond Roman, our oceanographer, has never seen anything quite like it!

We're currently here. At about 8PM (Madagascar time), we'll reach our next CTD station. I'm supposed to be sleeping now as my shift starts again at midnight. I've just spent quite some time trying to explain most of the CTD sampling stations to the 3 Malagasy scientists who have been placed on my watch. Mainly in French, which is quite tiring - I haven't really used any French since school, which was quite some time ago now! I cunningly brought a French/English dictionary, and a book of nautical terms in ten languages, which should help. Still, it's very rusty, but I think I'm making myself better understood in my limited French than in English, so I guess it's worth it. To the right, Bradley is processing a zooplankton sample from the multinet.

Earlier on, Bradley explained his multinet zooplankton sampling method to all the newcomers; on the left, he's showing them the datasheet generated by Nansen's on board systems that tracks at what depths and for how long each of the 5 multinet nets was open for and between what depths - he also covered how to actually process the samples and how to correctly label samples. After that, we went to the back of the ship where he showed them how the sample containers (cod ends) are hooked up to the system.

Proper labelling can't be underestimated; there's nothing quite as frustrating as coming across a jar of something and not knowing what it is or where it's from - a waste of potentially very valuable data! Most containers on this cruise are labelled at least twice, generally once in pencil and then in permanent marker; if the samples get really wet, the labels suffer, and if there are solvents, the marker is erased. Many samples also have a pencil-written label inside too! Adequate redundant labelling is particularly important on very long cruises, and when you are collecting specimens for other people - ditto adequate note-taking so they can work out what you did - and if they ask you, you have something to refer to in 2 years time when they suddenly ask you to remember something you did at 3am one morning on a heaving ship!

Position update

The Malagasy scientists are settling into life on the Nansen - we're showing them the ropes of the sampling protocols, fortunately, it's been fairly calm and the new people haven't been too seasick. We started another CTD line this morning, we're also doing plankton sampling with the Multinet and Bongo nets.

This is a lot less taxing than the fish trawl sorting that has had us so wrapped up the last few days! But it's a lot to take in, and I think there are a few language difficulties. I keep thinking that I shoud try out my (very!) rusty French, but I don't know many of the technical phrases! Using the word "thing" a lot isn't exactly all that helpful...

On the left, you can see the bongo net being launched; Jens-Otto and I managed to fix the tear in the net with some spare mesh and a hot-melt glue gun. I think in about 50 years time, civilisation will be entirely constructed out of cable ties, duct tape, hot melt glue gun and microchips!

We're currently here, and due to arrive at our next station in about 20 minutes.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Neat new toys!

Final post for the evening [if the internet ever comes up again!] - I need to get up early tomorrow to fix the bongo net that got a tear in it and lost a cod-end.

The ship is currently speeding along at just over 11 knots; the wind is blowing a "moderate breeze" on the Beaufort scale, and there's 71m of water under us.

Our current position is here.

My friend Guy Halse has created a very nifty PHP google maps mashup application (click here for working example for this blog - do check it out!) which strips the ship coordinates out of this blog and updates a "cruise track" map of where we've been. It's not totally accurate, as I don't update positions frequently enough (it would be cool to automate this process - the ship is continuously recording several parameters (including location) at once, and it should be easy enough to copy over bits of the log files somewhere...).

Finally, Raymond Roman, chief scientist on this leg of the ASCLME cruise (as he's known in South Africa) or co-cruise leader (as he's known aboard the Nansen) has given me some results from the first CTD line we did on the way towards Madagascar. Apparently, there is nothing particularly suprising about this data - it fits what you'd expect in the region (if you were a physical oceanographer!).

To the left, you'll find an image Raymond gave me that plots some preliminary results. Take a moment to open the full size version by clicking on it (perhaps open in a new window/tab if you know how, you may like to refer back to this page as you look at it). The axes and measurements illustrated are fairly self-expanatory, I think, but I'd like to draw your attention to the "hump" in the data around the 230km mark (look along the bottom axis for distance). This hump is a kind of upwelling, an oceanographic term that describes when deeper water is "lifted" into a shallower position than you would expect it to be (i.e. deep water coming up towards the surface). This can be driven by several processes, but this one is probably driven by eddies - something I hope to make the subject of a future post. An experienced oceanographer can detect within this picture a number of distinct water bodies formed in different parts of the ocean - some from as far away as the poles and the Red Sea.

Upwellings are not only interesting oceanographic phenomena, but they're also biologically important. Deep waters are generally rich in nutrients that phytoplankton (microscopic marine plants) need to grow - think of it as natural fertiliser! The Indian Ocean is fairly poor in nutrients, so this upwelling could be a major source of nutrients and therefore biological productivity. Understanding these processes and their linkages to the ecosystems we're studying is of fundamental importance to management of marine resources - the very reason we're out here doing this work!

In areas with frequent significant upwelling, very rich fisheries can develop, such as off Peru, the coast of California and, closer to us here, the Benguela Current system off the west coast of South Africa, Namibia and Angola. Such rich upwellings are not a feature of this area (and are driven by wind against continental margins, rather than by eddies). However, in a nutrient-poor (oligotrophic) area like the western Indian Ocean, even this more modest upwelling is likely to be important to the whole ecosystem. A later leg of the cruise will focus extensively on "hunting" eddies in the Mozambique channel and doing detailed analysis of the oceanographic conditions on the edges and through the middle of them. How you hunt an eddy is a story for another time...!

Farewell and Hello!

Arrie Klopper and Sean Fennessy got off the Nansen today - eventually - aboard a tugboat from the port. We'll be sad to see them go, but look forward to making new friends and colleagues with the Malagasy scientists joining us.

The small tender boat on the Nansen seems to have developed a fault with its gearbox, which prevented us carrying out the plan of ferrying people back and forth with that. The port at Toalanaro has a very shallow depth, which meant the ship couldn't get in to dock. We spent most of the day waiting around to make contact with the port authorities and then for the customs officials to come aboard. Hopefully, I have some new, exciting stamps in my passport!

Most of the new Malagasy scientists were brought out on the tug, which was eventally organised after the Nansen's tender ended up out of action. (Two of them came earlier in the tender with the customs officials from the port). There were some fairly hair-raising moments as people transferred themselves and all their luggage between the two vessels and up a rope ladder (with wooden rungs to make things a lot easier!).

In other news, and to keep the technophiles happy and informed, our internet has been really glitchy for most of today and intermittently yesterday. This part of Madagascar has a small mountain range right up against the coastline - quite spectacular, but sadly very hazy and hard to see! Yes. Mountains are stopping our internet!

Our internet is provisioned through a geostationary satellite (the dish radome and the rack-mounted gear have Telenor on them). Geostationary satellites are "parked" above the equator, so, as you get further north or south from the equator, you have to point you satellite dish closer and closer to the horizon. If you've never been near the equator, you've probably never seen the strange-seeming sight of dishes pointing straight up into the sky (no doubt, satellite dishes pointing at the horizon look strange to people from the equator!). At the moment, our dish is pointing at about 30° degrees of elevation from the horizon. With a bit of maths (basic trigonometry) you could work out what height of mountains would block our internet from what distance out to sea. The mountains have gaps through, so sometimes, we've had a brief burst of connectivity. Somewhat frustrating if you're trying to blog!

Satellite connectivity gear. If the green light saying "tracking" goes out, and the green one (dark in the photo) next to "Searching" comes on, you've lost the internet. Ooops!

The radome housing the dish that connects to the satellite. Obviously, as the ship moves around a lot, it's constantly in motion inside there, adjusting to the motion of the ship on the water, and its position as it moves around the world.

Photos courtesy Jens-Otto Krakstad/Magne Olsen/Bradley Flynn/James Stapley.

Farewell Nansen

Well, time for Arrie Klopper and myself to disembark - hard to believe we`ve been on board a week. Three hard days steaming, 2 days of physical oceanograpy, 2 days of trawling, 2 days to get back home! The fish team have spent some long hours keying out a stack of species - the anchovy mesh liner makes for some small specimens, and as for the demersal trawl, well, that got us 35 fish species in half an hour - including the tough wrasses and goatfishes.

We`re sitting off Tolianara (Fort Dauphin) waiting for the customs/immigration guys to finish their paperwork - the jetty is too shallow to let us close in, so we are being ferried by rubber duck - with a fresh north-easterly blowing nogal. Lucky we disembarkees are going with the wind, but the new arrivals and the immigration officials are somewhat damp - I amsure James will put some pics on later. Arrie and I have wrapped our bags in garbage bags, and we will be wearing some too, just like the shore anglers.

I will be following the blog with interest - thanks for the company and comradeship to all the crew especially Jens, Raymond, Jessica and James - fair weather and good catches.

Latest: the rubber duck has broken down, so we may have to transfer with the liferaft - will be a first for me - the alternative is to stay on until Toamasina.....

Some downtime... at last!

We're lying offshore of Toalanaro, Madagascar, where we are doing a small crew change (we're losing Arrie and Sean and picking up several Malagasy scientists and one South African). The ship is currently here.

I'll post some pictures a bit later of what we've been up to the last few days - it's been all action the whole time with trawling, sorting, identifying and sampling fish and those of us on the ship were getting frazzled under the workload. We've had most of today off so far, steaming to Toalanaro, and then waiting around for customs formalities. This evening, it's back out to CTD stations, a group meeting, and I guess some training of the new people joining us.

On the left, a rare sight indeed - the guest science team relaxing!

Until later!

Friday, 29 August 2008


In the second trawl, we used a different net and we caught 3 sharks (and a hell of a lot more fish). The first trawl was deployed fairly randomly, but the second one was deployed on a target found with the echosounder equipment during the acoustic survey. Clearly this is a far more efficient way of fishing!

Sharks generally survive being trawled quite well, as they are large, fairly robust, have tough skin and no swim-bladder. This means if you get them back into the water quickly, they have a reasonable chance of surviving. Jéssica (seen left taking a small tissue sample from the dorsal fin of one of them for genetic analysis) spearheads a little campaign to get any sharks back into the water as quickly as possible. Once out of the net, the sharks are quickly measured (more easily said than done when it's thrashing around on deck!) any samples taken, photographed and returned as quickly as possible to the water. We think we caught two Carcharhinus brevipinna and one Carcharhinus limbatus. Carcharhinid sharks are moderately tricky to identify, particularly if you only have them on hand for a short while. Above and to the left you can see Arrie about to return the first shark we measured to the water; above and to the right was Arrie's first attempt to try and move a much bigger shark. We needed a couple of people in the end to lift it up and place it where it would slide down the trawl ramp and back into the sea.

A few minutes ago we were here. The wind has picked up somewhat, being 21 knots, a "strong breeze". The air temperature is a pleasant 22.2°C, the water 21.9°C, with 85% relative humidity, and the air pressure 1014.6hPa. The water under the ship was 1069m deep, and we're making about 11.3 knots.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

All hands on deck!

It has been an eventful day! First, all the whale sightings and the completion of our first environmental sampling line, and just after sunset the first trawl comes on deck. Everyone is on the trawl deck to assist. What is hidden in the deep here on the south coast of Madagascar? The last survey in Madagascar with the Dr. Fridtjof Nansen was in 1983 and few, if any, international surveys have turned their head this way since then. So the excitement is understandable, no one knows exactly what to expect and the catch is carefully taken care of. Everything is counted and carefully identified. Rare species are stored for further analyses in onshore laboratories and tissue samples are taken for genetic analyses. The goal of the trawl sampling is together with hydro acoustic recordings to establish the productivity, biodiversity and biomass of the pelagic ecosystem.

Particularly the species identification may be a challenge and in this trawl one species in particular gave everyone a hard time. What species is this? The discussion goes on below in the fish lab where James Stapley and Jessica Escobar is paging through index keys while I write this.

First Trawl

We just did our first trawl of the cruise. I was briefly worried we'd be swamped with fish, but my previous experiences with tropical trawling should have told me what to expect - not much of a catch! 15 odd kilos, in fact, after a half hour of trawling with a massive net. A lot (about 13 kg) of that was jellyfish, 3 big ones that weighed in at over 7 kgs, and over 400 little ones that were over 6 kgs!

On the left, you'll see Arrie proudly holding up a Selar crumenophthalmus. Sneakily mixed in with 15 of those was a Decapterus russelli, which looks quite similar lying around in a bucket! This is the thing with biology and particularly sorting collections of biological materials; it pays to really pay attention to very small details.

Jéssica and I spent a while keying out some small juvenile barracuda. Eventually we got kind of stuck after they started asking about colour patterns and other characters only present in adults. Apparently, one catches a lot of small barracuda, according to Sean, so it would help to have keys that work with babies too. We went off down the wrong track for quite some time because I didn't look carefully enough at the angle of the gill arch for gill rakers - there was one there, but it was hard to see without a microscope. What was I just saying about paying attention to small details...? We eventually decided they were either Sphyraena acutipinnis or africana, but couldn't be certain either way (some people consider these species synonymous).

Arrie and Jéssica are now busy taking samples of the catch for FishBol, part of the Barcode of Life project, the ultimate aim of which is to make accurate identifications of species much easier for non-taxonomic experts, but it requires being able to sample a region of the genetic code of the specimen called Cytochrome Oxidase I. The idea is that eventually, when technology moves forward, you'll be able to buy genetic "barcode scanners" and with a small piece of tissue, get a readout of what you're dealing with in a few moments without recourse to keys or even taxonomic experts for particularly difficult groups. Of course, until such magic arrives, you're stuck with taking along expert taxonomists, which is one of the fields I've been involved in during the past few years! Arrie's main involvement on board is to do genetic sampling; he does fish genetics work at the University of Pretoria. The photo on the left shows Jens, Jéssica and Magne sorting the catch.

Some of the catch:

A flying fish? In a trawl? It is! (On the left). We think this is Parexocoetus mento.

Some Sardinella.

In other news, we started trying to do some Bongo net plankton sampling, but the place where it was first deployed from was threatening to take out one of the pulleys for the CTD, which was obviously a bad thing! The Bongo was then moved aft; on the next time it was deployed, one of the cod-ends (the bit where all the samples ends up) fell clean off, and one of the nets developed a tear in - we have to fix that but just haven't had a chance yet, unfortunately.

We are currently running a series of acoustic survey lines, where we use the advanced echosounders aboard the ship to detect fish swimming in the water column. Any particularly interesting-looking aggregations are targetting with a net and collected to see what they actually are.

Before I go to bed (I should have hopped into bed at 6 and it's now nearly 10:30 - and I'm due to be back on shift at midnight until 6am!), I have an updated position for those of you following us on the map. A friend of mine has coded a neat little PHP application that reads all the google map URLs in this blog and plots a "cruise track" - I'll try and implement that tomorrow if he sends me the code and I get some time. It's really nifty! We're currently cruising along here.

Whale, whales and more whales

Approaching the shelf today all was calm then we saw the first signs of whales, a few blowing straight ahead. Then there were at least 10 around us and for the rest of the day just more and more whales as far as you can see. All humpback whales. They clearly did not like it when the ship approached them and would stop all activity and move off. But as soon as we stopped to collect some water samples with the CTD, they would come and investigate us. Further away from the ship they would keep us entertained with lots of breaching, lob-tailing, sailing and everything else whales do. We need to put a sign put the main door out onto the deck:
Mind the whale!!
I stepped out to have a look what was going on outside sometime during the afternoon and almost tripped over the whale that was right there.

If the increase in frequency of sampling stations did not keep us busy enough, there was always whale watching to be done. I must say birding activity is still very calm. Between all of this we have approached land and the island of Madagascar is now in our sights. Not much currently to been seen, except for some long beaches and high dunes along the coast.

With the first trawl in the water now we will be busy well into the night sorting fish and collecting our much anticipated first fish samples. I feel like it is almost Christmas, and the presents will be opened soon and who knows what will be in there. Hopefully something interesting at least.

Thaaaar she bloooows!

Whales! We've been almost surrounded by whales for most of the day. Apparently, Southern Madagascar is where a lot of female humpback whales come to give birth before heading off to colder, richer feeding grounds, and people have reported seeing humpbacks and their calves around the ship. I think Arrie is going to upload a longer post on his Whale experience in a little while; he's been on his shift break when most of the whale action has been going on.

I've been exceptionally busy with Sean Fennessey today doing CTD stations and frantically taking samples before the next station; as we approached the coast, the CTDs got more and more frequent to the point we were still processing samples (filtering water) when the next one came on board, so there hasn't been much whale-watching for me! We're now a fairly well-oiled machine, and can (pretty much) take this in our stride now!

Pictures courtesy Magne Olsen.
These images have been cropped and edited as the whales were usually quite far away, so they were small in the frame.

Incidentally, you can click on pictures in the blog if you want to see larger versions.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

First day sampling

Sampling at last!! It is great to get things going and it is a learning curve for some of us with collecting oxygen, nutrient, chlorophyll a and phytoplankton samples. Currently the stations are far enough apart to complete all the tasks before the next samples are onboard. Must say it is quite interesting doing light microscopy on a ship that is rocking in the swell, as gentle as it may be at this stage. The calm seas we are experiencing are helping a lot to settle us into the rhythm of our six hour shifts. We are still far from the shelf edge (>4,500m of ocean below us) and things are pretty subdued out here. There is very little as far as bird activity that goes on, with only a few wanderers passing by now and then. Only been able to identify one species, Sooty terns. As for marine mammals, there's been no sign that any exist out here, except for Homo sapiens that have passed by and left their mark in the form of litter that floats out here. By tomorrow afternoon, once we are on the shelf, we should have the first fish trawl on deck, can’t wait for that.

Position update and a picture

Well, as we're a few stations on, I thought it might be time for a position update (click here).

I'm slowly managing to build this into a "team blog", so hopefully other people on the ship will add their posts to this blog and give you a different perspective on life aboard the R/V Dr Fridtjof Nansen. So far I've "recruited" Sean Fennessey and Arrie Klopper.

The sea is extremely calm today, almost oily, so I took some pictures around sunset, and have attached one to this post. In theory, this is one of my allocated sleep times on the vessel, but I feel the urge to update this blog!

First station teething problems

I guess any first station is likely to have a few teething problems; this one certainly did!
We neglected to check how the display of the CTD software was prepared for the cast - we wanted to have fluorescence (a measure of the amount of chlorophyll a, and therefore phytoplankton [microscopic plants], in the water) displayed so we could trigger bottles at particular depths, depending on the fluorescence readings. Unfortunately, we couldn't see the downcast (measurements as the instrument descends) data either, so we couldn't estimate fMax from that either; we opted to trigger the bottles at fairly standard depths (3,000, 2500, 1750, 1250, 1050, 850, 500, 300, 211 100, 50 and at the surface). We've fixed the display for the next station, of course!

That wasn't the only problem; quite a few of the Niskin bottles on the CTD mafunctioned in one way or another. The one triggered at the deepest depth we can reach with the wire available (3,000m) failed to trigger at all. The third bottle from 1,750m had a length of string on it that was somehow too short and didn't close properly. The 10th bottle, triggered at 100m had a leaky tap on it and the 11th bottle out of 12 had a tap missing by the time we saw it on deck again. This meant that we couldn't really take samples from 4 of the bottles, as there would have been contamination of the water samples, rendering them useless.

We hope the ship's crew can fix the niggles with the bottles, or swap them out for others, as it's rather important that we can effectively sample throughout the water column!

This had knock-on effects for 3 components of the science I'm partly responsible for, namely taking nutrient samples (4 depths unavailable), chlorophyll a sampling and phytoplankton collection. (I'll cover what those entail later in the cruise when we're more into the swing of things and I have a chance to take photos of someone else doing it, instead of me being too involved in doing the work to mess about with photography!).

Yes, the time on this post is correct, I am up and about and still working at after 4am (having not been to bed yet)!
CTD deployment photo courtesy Bradley Flynn

First station

YAY. The CTD just went in the water for our first station. Will be back with more in a while.

This photo from earlier shows Sean Fennessey, in the blue t-shirt, (who is based at ORI in Durban and specialises in fisheries) helping one of the Norwegian crew set up the cod-ends for the multinet.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Calm weather - at last!

The sky has cleared up, and the sea looks more like what I would expect from tropical sailing - blue skies with a few scattered clouds, impossibly blue water and a calm sea, with a gentle swell at most.

People are looking far perkier, and the ship is getting up to a decent speed now. It looks like we'll be getting on station around midnight or just after. We're making a good 10 or more knots now, and the wind has calmed to a "gentle breeze" on the Beaufort scale. There is currently over 4,000m of water under the ship, earlier in the day it was over 5,000m - it's deep out here!

The humidity outside is 73%, both the water and air temperature are a pleasant 21.6°C.

Click here to see our current position.

I'll try run around with a camera just now and do some photoblogging.
Picture by Bradley Flynn

Monday, 25 August 2008

Current Position

I've decided it would be quite cool to have the odd link to google maps with our position on; I'm currently in the acoustics centre with access to the ship's navigational data, so here it is:

Position: 28° 7.540'S 035°16.770'E
True wind speed: 24 knots, Strong Breeze
Current heading: 62°
Current speed: about 8 knots (it fluctuates a lot as the ship pitches).
Water temperature: 21.60°C
Air temperature: 22.10°C
Air Pressure: 1009.60 hPa
Rel. Humidity: 79%

Stormy Seas

With even the most experienced sailors amongst the guest science team having taken some serious strain in the seasickness department, we'll be glad to see the back of the current weather. I find I'm usually OK unless I try something silly like eating or looking at a computer screen... I mainly find myself doing a lot of sleeping. It's also seriously impeding our progress; only being able to make about half the speed we should be able to against the stong current and the near-gale force winds. This will put us quite far behind schedule; at the speed we were doing just after breakfast this morning, it was likely that it would be another 39 hours before we even arrived at our first station. This means that in order to keep on schedule, we'll have to drop some stations we were planning to do.

It looks like we'll be doing shift-work, with 6 hours on and 6 hours off once we're on station; personally, I'd prefer something closer to a "normal" day; my body seems to prefer getting 8-9 hours of sleep in a stretch, but the pace of work aboard a research vessel demands 24 hour a day operations. I've opted for the shifts that run from midnight to 6AM and midday to 6PM; I'm naturally a bit of a night-owl anyway.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

First morning at sea

Well, it's near gale-force winds out here and the ship is only doing about 4-5 knots. We've come about 60 Nautical Miles (multiply by 1.8 if you want kilometers) from Durban so far. At the moment, there's about 940m of water under the ship. Position is 29°26.847'S 32°5.900'E.

We just tried to have a bit of a cruise meeting up in the Acoustics lab, which is quite high up on the ship. As the scientists peeled off one by one to reduce the amount of breakfast they were carrying, it was decided to perhaps postpone the meeting and try holding it lower down on the ship. Chief Scientist Raymond Roman was particularly bleak - even with all the cruises he's done in the rough southern oceans, this is the first time he's lost his breakfast!

Turns out looking at computer screens is not ideal, just lost my breakfast! S0, I'll keep this brief. Up until just now, Sean Fennessy and I were the only guest scientists not feeling too bad. The ship is bouncing up and down quite a bit - but at least it's not rolling, which really makes me queasy! Sean's still going strong, but he spends quite a lot of time on the water.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Setting sail

I woke up at 7am when my alarm clock went off; half an hour later we were called into breakfast over the intercom system. I'll be the first to admit I'm not a morning person, so I crawled into the mess (dining room), conveniently situated about 10m away from my cabin and ate some toast, taking in plenty of coffee.

We decided that we should go into town and do some last-minute shopping. The Captain phoned the shipping agent to arrange a minibus to take us there; in theory, the driver should have been at the ship at about 10:30, but I think we only got on the road about an hour or so after that. The shipping agent's driver reckoned the Pavillion shopping centre was rather closer to the harbour than Gateway (which is actually just outside Umhlanga, the town to the North of Durban), so we got him to drive us there, which cost us (well me, as I paid) R500 for the return trip.

At Pavillion, we decided that we'd split up to do our own thing and then meet up again at 2pm where the minibus dropped us off. The Norwegian crew members went off to do their thing, and the South African contingent took in a greasy lunch at Spur. I then hared off and looked for the random things I wanted to get, including a European-style plug to South African-style plug adaptor (unavailble!), various extension cables, bungee cords, treat snack food, coca-cola, an ethernet cable, some blank CDs and DVDs in case we need them and so on. After that, we piled back into the minibus and then set to work on the ship.

Whilst the ship had been "packed" in Cape Town, it was "packed" like a warehouse, not a research vessel, so we had to move all the research supplies for the other 3 legs (and those for this leg for which there was insufficient room) to other locations on the ship. Lots of heavy and awkward lifting! At the same time, we started to set up the lab spaces for work, which is mainly complete now, tying down everything that was loose so the motion of the ship doesn't mean that we end up with things flying around the place, breaking things or injuring people. There was so much equipment, we ended up storing some of it out on the deck, suitably tied down so it doesn't end up blowing away.

In terms of setting up lab space, I usually find it takes a day or two to figure out the best arrangement for things (never quite ideal on a ship where you have the constraints of limited space, and also a limit to exactly where you can tie things down to). Until we get on station and start working (approximately two days from the time we set sail from Durban), we won't really be able to see if what we've done is suitable. My most cunning plan was to create a holder for the big roll of lab tissue paper, so that it was off the floor or potentially damp bench space, could unroll on demand and not go rolling off anywhere. Arrie helped me create the ropework needed, and we now have a handy paper dispenser. We also secured the massive chest freezer that was bought for this cruise to store dissolved nutrient and genetic samples, using some wood to hold it from sliding back or to one side too far, and string to stop it travelling in the other two directions. We trust its weight will stop it flying upward... Unfortunately, this freezer has wheels on, which concerns me somewhat. We thought about lifting it up off the wheels, but couldn't find any suitable thin planks. I'm sure it'll be fine now it's securely roped.

I've been asked to co-ordinate (i.e. do until I find someone else who's keen to do it - we're very short of people until we get to Madagascar, with just 6 guest scientists) the work of 2 other scientists, one looking at nutrients and chlorophyll in the water, along with wanting plankton samples, and the other wanting me to do his sampling for stable isotope analysis - both of those are pretty much full time jobs on their own. And of course, I'm also here to work on fish when we do any trawling (my background is in ichthyology, the study of fish). My schedule is looking rather full! I spent quite a lot of today hunting in boxes, trying to find the bits of equipment the other science work needed - it's quite hard to find things where there are about 100 potential boxes in which something might possibly be - far easier to find things if you packed the boxes and know where things are!

The original plan was to set sail from Durban at 8PM this evening. As you can probably see from the time on this post, and the fact that we're still tied up to the dock whilst I write this, it's clearly not going to happen that way.

Quite a few of the scientists had headed for bed when I started writing this post, just before 10. A little while after that, I was informed by Jens, the chief Norwegian scientist (Cruise Leader) on this leg, that the South African Customs officials wanted to see the faces of these mysterious scientists for whom the passports were on board the vessel. Of course, this then meant waking up those who had turned in for an early night, which fell to me. Surprisingly, the customs people arrived earlier than they had said, so a second round of wake-up (hurry-up?) calls ensued.

The customs people were on the bridge, so we all trekked up the stairs, past the Restricted Area - No Unauthorised Entry (unauthorised presence in this area constitutes a breach of security) sign which had always put me off checking out the Bridge, so I got my first look at it. (The engine room has a similar sign). It's quite spectacularly modern with tons of fun-looking toys to play with. The main (Captain's) chair in there is mounted on rails, so it can be moved left and right across the floor to get a better view out of the forward windows, depending on the conditions. Of course, there were plenty of radar and sonar screens, which were sadly off and a nice chart table section with about 5 different GPS and heading readouts. There is a well appointed radio room up there too. The customs people did their thing, and then we all went our separate ways again.

The Captain for this leg of the ship only arrived on board just before 7PM, and wanted to get familiar with the ship before we set sail, as he had never sailed on the Nansen before - he's also just come from a 30 hour journey from Norway. Apparently, the plan is to depart around midnight. Much as I'd like to hang around and wait for the vessel to set sail, the cumulative sleep deprivation of the last couple of days is getting to me, so I think I might go to bed.

On the other hand, we have two days of sailing time ahead of us, during which we won't be doing very much. Which is the perfect opportunity to do some updates to the website which I need to do (for instance, the main cruise page is now wrong because the dates have changed) and do things like put together a bit of a tour of the ship, and perhaps some little mini-biographies or interviews with some of the people on board.

Let's see what tomorrow brings!

Edit: 23:39 - it feels like the main engines might have been started, the ship is throbbing differently.

Friday, 22 August 2008

All aboard!

I've arrived in Durban after a ridiculously early start (the shuttle cab driver showed up at my house at 2:50am, and we got to the airport so early it wasn't even really open yet) and have now boarded the R/V Dr Fridtjof Nansen, despite the security guard at the entrance to the part of the harbour where the ship is docked demanding that the passengers in the car (Jessica Escobar-Porras, Arrie Kloppers and myself) wear safety helmets and a lumo yellow jacket. Which of course we did not have in the car. I wonder exactly what a safety helmet and a lumo orange/yellow jacket would actually achieve if one of the huge shipping containers being moved about with massive gantry cranes happened to drop on your head... The person from the shipping agent had a little chat with him and eventually, they resolved that as we were scientists and getting straight on the Nansen, sticking to the regulations about safety equipment was pretty pointless.

For the moment, we each seem to have a cabin to ourselves - on a long sea voyage, having your own space is very pleasant - although I suspect this will only be until we get to Madagascar. The cabins on the Nansen are quite plush, somewhat like a business-class hotel, with a little hi-fi, some bunk beds and a couch/table affair. When I find someone walking around with a digital camera, I'll see what I can do about photoblogging - unfortunately, I'm still stuck in the days of film!

I'm also getting to grips with a Norwegian layout keyboard, but once I find an ethernet LAN cable, I'll be able to use the laptop I brought from the office, probably even from my cabin, as there's a likely looking jack in there. They've recently installed a massive plasma TV in the recreation room at the bottom of the ship. If only I had a monitor cable to hook my laptop up to it (I have loads in my office... in Grahamstown). I'll try and do a blog entry that's a mini-tour of the ship at some stage. I even managed to scrounge up the right cable to make a European to South African adaptor; if only I had remembered to bring a screwdriver.

We're now waiting for some more people to join us; Sharon du Plessis and Tommy Bornman are flying in for the day to attend a science meeting this afternoon, along with the rest of the scientific crew for the section of the leg across to Madagascar. We'll go over the plan for this leg, if not the entire cruise, and look at trying to sort out the absolute chaos that is going on in all the labs - the number of boxes of stuff has to be seen to be believed, and I guess it'll fall to us to establish some kind of order!

The ship is actually only leaving tomorrow (Saturday) evening, so I think we'll try and harangue the shipping agent to take us shopping somewhere tomorrow morning and stock up on delicious treats and any other random items we realise we left behind. You'd be surprised how you can crave something as simple as a sip of Coke or a chocolate bar when you just can't possibly have one! I packed some "emergency rations", just in case, but now that weight isn't a problem, one can be less selective! Hopefully, we can manage to get as far afield as the Gateway shopping centre in Umhlanga, because that has everything.

I'll check in again later.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Welcome to the ASCLME Nansen Cruise 2008 Blog

Welcome to the 2008 cruise blog!

We will shortly be setting off on this pioneering voyage of discovery. We (Tommy Bornman begin_of_the_skype_highlighting     end_of_the_skype_highlighting and James Stapley) will endeavour to keep this blog up-to-date so you can follow the progress of the ship and what's happening on board. I'll be doing the first leg, from Durban to Mauritius, whilst Tommy will cover the other 3 legs.

The ship sets sail from Durban tomorrow. I will be joining the ship then, leaving home in Grahamstown at about 3am in order to get to the airport in time to make the 6:20am flight to Durban from Port Elizabeth. Tommy will also be travelling to Durban for a meeting - somehow, he managed to get on a flight at the rather more civilised time of 11am. The joys of last minute bookings!

Those of you who have been following the cruise for a while will probably know that we should have been at sea some time ago, indeed, the ship was originally scheduled to leave from Maputo last week. However, a number of problems on board the ship, including engine faults and even some leaky tanks, meant the R/V Dr Fridtjof Nansen had to spend some time in drydock being repaired, so the cruise is running behind schedule. At least now we're fairly confident the ship will make the entire voyage without sinking, which is certainly reassuring!

If you'd like to learn more about the cruise, be sure to check out the cruise page:

Be sure to check back regularly; we will try to update the blog at least once a day with what is happening on board the ship; if at all possible, we will also upload photos every so often, although bandwidth on the ship is extremely limited.

If you have any questions about the research expedition or life on board the ship, please direct them to and they will be passed on to us.

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