Finally, the chance to live out one of my childhood dreams of being part of a scientific team on a Royal Research Ship. My PhD at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) started in October last year, with the aim of studying deep-sea ecosystems. I have spent the last months preparing and annotating thousands of images taken by HyBIS on last year’s cruise. Now it is my turn to see behind the scenes, be part of the team conducting HyBIS dives and call myself a ‘proper’ scientist.
The goal of HyBIS is to collect images at the Porcupine Abyssal Plain Sustained Observatory (PAP-SO). HyBIS is a modular robotic underwater vehicle (RUV) that is towed behind the ship to collect images of the seabed, capable of reaching 6000 m depth. The attached cable and fibre optics provide a live video link and the camera is programmed to take a picture every 5 seconds. The images collected on these missions are used to record environmental conditions of the deep-sea. The deep-sea is the largest ecosystem on earth that plays a crucial role in carbon cycling and regulating global processes. Not only do we want to observe this extreme and alien world, but it is necessary to understand how the ecosystem works to conserve the important habitat.
The primary food source for deep-sea organisms is the flux of particles that falls to the deep from surface waters, and the amount of particles that reach the seabed is affected by local climate. Monitoring the effects of climate change on deep-sea communities is one area of research conducted using HyBIS images. For example, we can count the number of organisms and how they change through time, and compare those changes with climate conditions that are also monitored at PAP-SO.
The night arrived to conduct the first HyBIS dive of the cruise. The RUV was launched overboard and the crew took some time to confirm it was receiving power, all systems were working and set up the camera and viewing screens. Many gather in the control room as HyBIS starts its descent, everyone eager to see the first images sent back from 4850 m deep into the abyss below us.
Figure 2. A couple of organisms seen during the HyBIS dive (Top), and an old trawl mark that has filled with phytodetritus and litter (bottom).
The camera reaches the sea-floor and the ship sets off at a steady 0.3 knots along a selected root. Audible ooh’s, ahh’s and wow’s can be heard around the lab as different organisms glide across the screen. The camera moves up and down with the waves and the winch attached to the cable has to be controlled throughout the dive. We want the camera to be close to the sea bed to be able to identify as many organisms as possible. But we also do not want to damage the ecosystem, or expensive equipment, by hitting the sea-floor. The hours go by quickly, being attentive to the images we are collecting and never knowing what will pass by our eye in the abyss next. From purple or spiky holothurians, red tentacles of anemones flowing in the current, to worms poking their heads out of their burrows to feed. The first HyBIS dive of my career has been a success. I hope to get more dives done during the cruise and look forward to getting the images back to NOC to start processing and annotating once more.
Written by Philip Smith