Storms on the horizon

2 May 2019

It looks like our incredible luck with the weather here in the North Sea is finally starting to fade. The pond-like conditions of the last few days are slowly becoming choppier and choppier as the James Cook begins to gently sway. Not that this has put off anyone on board – all veteran sailors now – though lunch may have been a little lighter today.

We continued our work surveying the area outside of the release site using the on board multibeam systems, a type of sonar device that lets us map the topography of the seabed. We have observed a number of man-made trawler marks and natural pockmarks. Pockmarks (a kind of circular 3-5m depression in the seabed) are of particular interest as they formed by the natural release of gases like methane and CO2 over long time periods, giving us great insight into the natural history of the area.

Sadly, with the weather slowly turning we’ve decided to head towards Aberdeen a day early and hide from the coming storm, but given how much we’ve already achieved this leg this is hardly a setback. To misquote the great orator Arnold Schwarzenegger: “We’ll be back”. We’ll return in a few days’ time to position the final few pieces of equipment and finally start blowing some bubbles. In the meantime, though we’re all enjoying a little downtime after what has been an increasingly busy first leg…

Table football is a popular activity on board the ship…but requires a bit more skill in a heavy swell!

The team relaxing in the bar area after a busy week’s work. Next stop: Aberdeen.

Fishing for data

1 May 2019

It’s the end of our first week at sea and things have settled into a steady routine. In comparison to the last couple of days today has been relatively calm… the perfect time to go fishing. Not the normal kind of fishing though – we’re off catching sophisticated underwater robots!

Our goal today was to complete a comprehensive study of the area to identify all the natural and pre-existing man-made features on the seabed. Sounds easy, right? Well, it is when using our Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV), the Gavia  – or as we call her – Freya. Unlike our ROV Isis, Freya does everything on her own. The team just needs to programme in the survey route, drop her in the water and away she goes.

Away she goes: launching the AUV Gavia (or Freya as she’s affectionately known) over the side of the ship

Looking like a mini torpedo, Freya carries an impressive array of kit. Today she carried an underwater camera, a sub-bottom profiler and a SeaFET chemical sensor, all of which will provide invaluable information about the area around the experimental site. The most difficult task for us on the ship is getting the AUV back on board. Once the Gavia surfaces the team sets out on a mini “fishing trip” in the smaller speedboat to hook her up and drag her back to the ship where she can be winched back on board.

Fishing for data: the recovery team use a grapple hook from the smaller speedboat to catch the AUV once her mission is complete.

Once safely back on board the ship, we can retrieve the data and find out what she saw on the seafloor!

And for those of you who prefer action movies, here’s the AUV recovery process in high speed…


Pushing on through!

30 April 2019

Another huge day on the James Cook today as we’ve successfully positioned the test pipe, meaning we’re one step closer to the Controlled Release Experiment. This impressive feat was accomplished using the Cellula Robotics drill rig, custom built for this expedition. After being lowered over the side of the ship, the rig was carefully oriented on the seafloor by adjusting the ship’s position. Once in place, a series of hydraulic rollers gently pushed the curved pipe into the seafloor sediments. Once its job was done, the drill rig was then lifted back on board the ship.

Clockwise from top left: lowering the drill rig over the side of the ship; the drill team carefully monitor the rig’s progress; monitoring from the ROV van; all eyes on the screens in the lab too!

Mark Wells from Cellula Robotics is one of the drill team on board the ship – he found time to give us a quick tour of the rig before it was deployed..

Sadly, there’s little time to sit around basking in this engineering marvel as we’re straight onto the next task. Our mission now is to figure out exactly where the forward end of the pipe is located in the sediment so we can begin to position our landers (which contain all the monitoring kit and sensors) on the seafloor around it. Once again we are using our ROV Isis, this time to carry out a series of sub-bottom seismic profiles of the area – this technique uses pulses of sound to image the top few metres of the seabed so we can see the structure. After processing the data from this survey we will be able to peer beneath the seabed and see exactly where the end of the pipe is located.

The sub-bottom profiler data: very useful squiggly lines, once you know how to interpret them!

One small step for man, one giant leap for the CO2 rig

29 April 2019

Huge progress towards the controlled release experiment today as we successfully placed the CO2 container on the seabed! Containing 3 tonnes of CO2, the gas rig was a pretty hefty load to be lowered over the side of the ship using the ship’s A-frame crane.

Caution! Wide load: the CO2 gas tanks go over back of the ship for placement on the seabed, 100m below…

Once the tanker was released to sink down to the seafloor, our ROV Isis set off straight after it to see how it landed. Given the size of the tanker (5.5 long by 2.5m wide) it was pretty easy to find, especially with the long recovery rope leading the way. To everyone’s relief and no one’s surprise, a thorough investigation showed everything was in perfect working order. We even got to see our first CO2 bubbles…though only from a very small test release from the tanker to ensure we have full control over the gas flow rate.

All eyes on the multiple screens in the ROV control van where camera feed from the gas rig and the ROV itself show progress of the tanks to the seafloor.

Nail-biting: The engineering team (and Chris!) monitor progress on the screens in the control room…

…whilst scientists are equally gripped by the action on the screens in the main lab.

Happy, smiley faces all round when it’s all done!

Next on the agenda is pushing the gas pipe in place in the seafloor sediments. This is another unique task, this time using the custom-built Cellula Robotics drill rig. There are so many “world firsts” being attempted on this cruise that these incredible feats of engineering are almost starting to feel routine!

Getting the lie of the land

28 April 2019

Today kicked off bright and early with our first deployment of the Gavia Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). The sea was uncharacteristically calm for the North Sea, with barely a wave in sight – hopefully a sign of how blessed this expedition will be! After a quick ballast test the Gavia dived down over 100m to begin surveying the site of our controlled release experiment. This will create a detailed 200,000 square metre map of the area using sidescan sonar and underwater photography. In fact, we will know the area better than the back of our hand as we also carried out a seismic survey using a chirp sub bottom profiler so we know what it looks like up to 10m below the sediment surface!

The AUV Gavia being launched (with the Goldeneye platform in the background), and some of the images from the seabed 100m down…. featuring sea stars!

Tomorrow the heavy lifting begins as we lower the gas tank and drill the pipeline which the rest of the team has spent the day preparing for.

Our engineering team give the CO2 tanks the final once-over before deployment tomorrow.

And so it begins…

27 April 2019

We arrived at our first work site early this morning and quickly set to work. There’s an incredible amount of work everyone needs to get done in such a short length of time but everyone is valiantly rising to the task.

All systems go: Teams hard at work getting kit ready for deployment. From left: the seabed lander; making sure the acoustic releases work; last tweaks to ROV Isis before she gets her toes wet.

The earliest part of the day was spent deploying various water profilers such as the SVP (sound velocity profiler) and current meters. Each was lowered over the side of the boat via a small crane, and then a large rope lowered them over 100m to the seabed.

Preparing the velocity profilers for launch

In the afternoon the baseline lander was deployed – this is the piece of equipment that will make all sorts of environmental measurements during the experiment. This deployment is thought to be the largest number of lab on chip and acoustic sensors ever attached to a single lander. These sensors will gather background information on what the chemistry of the seawater at the bottom of the North Sea is normally like – so that any change that occurs as a result of our release experiment can be easily detected.

Splashdown: the seafloor lander is lowered into place by the ship’s crane

Finally, and ahead of schedule, the Remote Controlled Vehicle (ROV) ISIS was deployed. No scientific equipment was attached however as this was just a test to ensure everything was ready for the coming weeks of work.

Deployment of ROV Isis with the Goldeneye platform in the background

And some breaking news…the ROV found the seabed lander that was deployed 18 months ago! Great news for the project – it has resisted being discovered during previous recovery attempts! Smiley happy faces all round on the ship – and back on shore – a great finish to the first day of work!

Big smiles: Dirk and James are reunited with the Devologic seabed lander – albeit via video feed from ROV Isis to a flatscreen TV!

Final preparations

26 April 2019

Our second day at sea has been a quiet hum of activity. The ship is speeding towards the Goldeneye site for arrival at midday tomorrow, while the rest of us begin to prepare our equipment for the coming days. Teams have been taking advantage of the relative quiet before the storm, going through the plans with a fine toothcomb and ensuring everyone knows their responsibilities. Mostly though we’re just enjoying the last real down time we’ll all have before it’s all stations go on site.

Chris and Doug discuss plans with engineering gurus Kevin and Rob

Seafloor mapping team (Veerle and James) review the survey plans with Chris and Doug

Making sure all the sensors are ready too…

It’s important to note that even at this late stage plans are still being adjusted. As a forgotten general once said “No plan survives contact with the enemy” or as Mike Tyson put it “Everyone’s got a plan till they get hit in the face.” With an experiment as complicated and unique as this, flexibility is key and we need to be able to quickly adapt our plans at any moment. Something that will be much easier now thanks to Chris Pearce’s patented “Seep Map”! A 4ft-high map of the experiment site complete with scale diagrams of all the landers, which allows us to easily visualise the position of our equipment throughout the expedition. No doubt this will prove an invaluable tool (and a surprising amount of fun)!

The Master Plan

We’ll all no doubt be having an early night tonight to make sure we are all ready for the first lander deployments…

Farewell Southampton…hello open seas!

25 April 2019

The James Cook set off bright and early at 9am this morning on expedition JC180, better known as the “Controlled Release Experiment.” Despite the brisk conditions the team braved the deck to wave farewell to National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, mentally going through their packing lists for the hundredth time to make sure they really hadn’t left anything behind. We’re now ready and raring to go!

Farewell! The RRS James Cook leaves the dock outside NOC in Southampton

Life on the ocean wave: great views of the Isle of Wight as the ship passes down the Solent

The science and engineering teams were treated to a full tour of the ship, for us this is our home for the next 35 days. Highlights included the bridge, the gym and – most importantly – the mess.

The nerve centre of RRS James Cook – the team take in the view from the ship’s bridge

After this, teams started getting to work on all their various pieces of equipment … until the muster alarm sounded at 1pm. The busy murmuring of the crew was shattered by seven short and one long blasts from the ship’s horn – the general alarm. People quickly gathered their life jackets and assembled at their designated meeting points. Fortunately, this was just a practice, ensuring everyone knows what to do in an emergency situation.

The most important part of our first day at sea: the safety drill

Finally, to round off what had already been a busy first day, Chris Pearce led the first science meeting of the expedition. Covering the next 34 days of activity and going through each team’s responsibility in detail, it means everyone is now fully prepared for the weeks ahead.

Heads down: Chris Pearce convenes the first science meeting of the expedition

They’re off!

25 April 2019

On a chilly and breezy morning, RRS James Cook set out from Southampton on a 3-day transit to the experiment site offshore NW Scotland. During this time the team on board will make sure the equipment is ready for action, finish setting up the laboratories on the ship and – most importantly – find their sealegs!

Here’s the team braving the chilly temperatures to give us a wave from the front deck as the ship passed Calshot Castle on its way out of the Solent this morning. From now on, our eyes and ears on board, Ben, will be sending us regular updates on activities on the ship so stay tuned…


JC180: Locked and loaded

24 April 2019

With less than 24 hours to go until the RRS James Cook departs, the team are busy loading all the equipment onto the ship, which is moored in the dock outside the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. The drill rig, drill pipes, remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Isis and all the sensor rigs are on board and safely secured in readiness for the journey north. This morning the enormous CO2 gas tanks were craned onto the back deck of the ship, and the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Gavia was also loaded a few hours ago. With all the major equipment on board, scientists are now checking that they have all the smaller items of kit they need for the work on board: computers, lab equipment, batteries, backup drives, spare parts…and of course their own belongings for a month at sea!

Dockside at NOC: RRS James Cook is being loaded up with the kit for the expedition, which leaves tomorrow morning

The CO2 gas tanks are loaded onto the back deck of RRS James Cook

AUV Gavia being prepared for loading. The bespoke drill rig, made by Cellula Robotics, can be seen in the background

The loading and checking will continue for the rest of today, and then this evening the whole team will meet for a pre-expedition briefing before going out for a team dinner. The ship will depart the dock in Southampton early tomorrow morning, so everyone will sleep on the ship tonight in order to be ready for a smooth getaway in the morning.