9th November- Being a Doctor at Sea


Ships Doctor

For the last 4 years I have combined my job as an emergency medicine doctor in the UK with medicine in the polar regions. First with the British Antarctic Survey, then the government of South Georgia and more recently a polar tourism company.  I have worked with the National Oceanographic Centre once before but this trip with the James Cook is my first time working somewhere hot!

Working as a doctor in these remote spots usually means a light medical workload but you have to prepared my anything, I have treated malaria in the Antarctic, serious trauma on South Georgia and was the expedition medic during a mass casualty incident in the Arctic.

However a lot of my time has been spent in non medical pursuits. In the Antarctic I helped weigh penguins and fur seal pups. I have driven boats and learnt how to bake bread. For a while I ran the South Georgia post office. On the cruise ships I combine medicine with my other passion, photography and work partly as a photography guide.

Below is a selection of photos from the places I have visited.


South Georgia, Antarctica. Mid Winter Camping whilst working for the British Antarctic Survey


Gentoos at Maiviken, South Georgia, British Antarctic Survey Penguin and Seal Science Area


Blonde Fur Seal, South Georgia, British Antarctic Survey


Clouds over Penguin River, South Georgia, British Antarctic Survey


Iceberg near Pleneau Island, Antarctica, Quark


Whale, Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctica, Quark


Polar Bear, Svalbard, Quark


Blog Written By: Sam Crimmin

Posted in Preparing for field work

5th November: Halfway there!

Over the past three weeks or so we have been very busy, not leaving us much time to take stock of what we’ve actually done. We are now about to start on a 4-day transit to our next sampling site, the Vema ridge, giving us some time to look back on what we have accomplished so far. So with tomorrow being the halfway point (in time) of our cruise, here our some of the highlights so far.


We have had 8 successful ROV dives, during which a wide range of weird and wonderful deep sea creatures have been seen, from thresher sharks to a rare Dumbo octopus. Throughout these dives 1347 individual pieces of biology have been collected (a fair amount of these were tiny worms living on fan corals, but every creature big or small is useful).



During the ROV dives our main aim is to collect corals, fossil and live for paleoclimate dating and proxy work. Following the dives at our 2 sample sites, we now have 110 live and 1055 fossil solitary corals (corals that live as isolated individuals), not to mention the thousands of pieces of colonial coral (corals that live in multi-animal groups sharing an exoskeleton). These have all been labelled, photographed and boxed/bagged ready to be transported back to Bristol.



We have had 3 CTD’s, and sampled for various analyses including Carbonate, radiocarbon, dissolved oxygen, nutrients and trace elements. All of which have a different bottle and slightly different water sampling procedure. Combined with the Niskin bottles sent down on the megacorer and those on ISIS ROV this gives us a whooping great 581 water samples, as well as some beautifully decorated squashed cups.


Sediment coring

As for the sediment sampling, at the moment our on-board foram specialists are now looking to see what species of foram are in the sediment we have collected, which will help us roughly work out how old it is.


The current sediment tallies include 9 megacores, a piston core, multiple push cores, and this morning we struck gold (a. k. a mud) on another successful gravity core attempt (giving a total of 3 gravity cores so far), leading to many delighted squeals of “We have mud”. This sets us up nicely to celebrate our half point (and Shannon’s birthday) tonight with a BBQ on deck. Fingers crossed the sun will stay out for us…

Blog Written By: Vanessa Fairbanks

Posted in Preparing for field work

November 3rd: Solar Eclipse

Yesterday morning, November 3rd, a buzz went around the ship that we were going to witness a 90% solar eclipse as we finished coring in the eastern basin of the Atlantic Ocean. We were actually all out on deck at the peak of the eclipse (about midday GMT), waiting for a coring device to be retrieved back onto deck.  However, alas, it was cloudy!  We’ve been sitting in a monsoonal depression for a few days and have had a lot of  cloud cover and downpours. I was out on deck and, I think we all agreed, it was darker than usual, but no one could agree as to whether it was because it was particularly overcast.

Later on in the day, we had confirmation that the ship’s light sensors had picked up the blocking of the sun’s light as the moon passed between it and the Earth. Less of a spectacle than we all hoped for, but interesting nonetheless.

Today, of course, the sun is shining!

Blog Written By: Kate HendryEclipse

Posted in Preparing for field work

03 November: Worms!

I pulled some worms out of little holes in a coral yesterday.

That’s not something I’ve done before.

Another successful ROV dive came up on deck.  The Isis carries five bottles for collecting seawater, and my job is to process these seawater samples. Some samples are chemically preserved, some are filtered, and some are analysed on board. When everything was done to preserve the seawater samples, I went to find the biologists to see if I could help. Michelle told me that I could help by pulling worms out of a coral, which she would be able to use in her research. And that I should not lose the heads, as they’re really important for identification.

“Are you sure you want to trust me with such an important job?”, I asked apprehensively.

Apparently she did.

Whilst I frequently work with biologists, I’m rarely able to carry out such “front-line” biology (as it were) myself. Somewhat disturbing, but somewhat satisfying, I spent the next few minutes yanking out little centimetre-sized scaly worms with a pair of tweezers, desperately trying to avoid pinging off any heads across the laboratory.

Surprisingly, this sort of thing is what I love about being on a research cruise: you get to see and learn new things to which you would otherwise never get exposed. The other day I brushed up my geology skills by helping to slice up a deep-sea sediment core. I’ve learnt new computer programs, and operated cameras that are over two kilometres away. I’ve found out about mapping the seafloor, and about some of the amazing creatures that live there. Let’s see what today has in store…

Blog Written By: Kate Hendry

Posted in Preparing for field work

October 31: Deep Sea Sediment Cores

We have started collecting our first few cores from the deep ocean! Marine sediment cores are like ice cores, but instead of ice they are made of sediments from the sea floor. The sediments build up in successive layers over time, so scientists can use them to study how oceanic conditions changed through the past.


A hand-held colour scanner is used to measure the colour of the sediments. This allows us to plot graphs of the core’s luminosity and colour. These data can reveal changes in conditions under the sea (e.g. calcium carbonate content, dust inputs, diagenesis and anoxia).


A core description is written, detailing any features such as mottling or bands. The different colours of the sediments are described with the help of a Munsell colour chart.

We also have a megacorer on board, which can collect up to 12 smaller-sized sediment cores at a time. The cores are housed in a metal framework which protects the cores allowing the sediment-water interface to be well-preserved. The water overlying the sediments can be collected for measurement. Some of the cores have little holes down the sides, which allow pore waters to be collected from inside the sediments.


How do we know the ages of these sediments? There are several different techniques that can be used to date sediment cores. On our cruise we are using biostratigraphy to estimate the age of our sediment cores; see ‘Foram Biostratigraphy’ in the ‘Lab’ section for more information about this technique.

For my PhD project I’m studying foraminifera, single-celled animals that make tiny shells which can be measured to reveal ocean chemistry. The foraminifera are taken from marine sediment cores, so it was fantastic to be able to observe the coring process to see how my samples would have been collected. I wonder what work will be done on our cores in the future, and what they might reveal?

Blog Written By: Stephanie Bates


Posted in Preparing for field work

October 26: The cruise so far…

Besides ROVing many more things happened since we left Tenerife on the 13th. During the 5 days transit we set up things and everyone was trained in all different kinds of gear and procedures in order to carry out multiple tasks on board. So team science was split into two 12 hour shifts covering the day’s cycle. On the 18th we arrived at our first sampling location. We spent much time and effort to shed some light on the secrets the dark deep-sea of the Atlantic Ocean holds at Carter seamount.

We started our scientific program off with a full deep-sea CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) profile close to the seamount. Water sampling bottles attached to the CTD rosette were fired (i.e., the lids were closed) at different depths throughout the water column allowing us to measure additional parameters for the respective depths, e.g. radiocarbon, nutrients and trace metals.


The ROV control van during a dive.

Once we arrived at the actual seamount, priority was given to ROV (remotely operated vehicle) dives in order to collect specific deep-sea fauna. The technicians in the control room are accompanied by at least three scientists at any time during a dive in order to identify samples to be collected and keep all logs up-to-date. Agreeing with chief scientist Robinson I can say that our dives have been spectacularly successful recovering loads of sample material from the seafloor! So we’ve been working hard on identifying, processing and storing all the precious live and fossil samples. Just this evening the ROV was back on deck after a ~12 hours dive, thus finishing the remaining bit of our Carter seamount transect from about 3 km water depth up to the top of the seamount at ~200 m water depth. That transect has been interrupted by rather bad weather conditions (see Peter’s photo of the day: 23.10.13). Since for ROV deployment and recovery good weather is being preferred we chose to do intermittent sediment coring which is less sensitive to bad weather conditions.


Piston core back at the surface from 4.6 km water depth.

During our ROV dives it turned out that the slopes of Carter seamount are very steep so that promising core locations are rare. Hence we steamed back to a deep-sea location at 4.6 km water depth which we identified as a promising site during our hydro-acoustic surveys. After the mega-corer came back on deck with three out of eight potential cores being filled with sediment (not bad for the beginning!) we watched the long piston core diving down. It took a few hours of waiting before the barrel was finally back on deck so that we recovered the core liner and cut it in sections. At a first glance the core showed some spectacular changes of sediment properties. However, a color scan will be done tonight. This scan will give us a better estimate of sediment color variability through time and hence, will allow drawing some conclusions about the time interval covered by the ~7.50 m of sediment.


Captain angry: Arrr! Mega-core empty again!

Caption photo 3: Captain angry: Arrr! Mega-core empty again!

While I’m writing this entry we finished another mega-coring attempt. Unfortunately, the mega-corer came back on deck without any sediment and furthermore, the hard bedrock also damaged some of the tubes – but we have enough spares on board! I’m heading to bed now while the night shift will be busy processing the samples collected during the last ROV dive.

Fingers crossed that we can announce more coring success soon!

Written By: Torben Struve

Posted in Preparing for field work

October 25th: Message from Laura

If you have been checking this blog you might wonder why we have been so quiet…it is because we have been working hard on our first sampling site with 24 hour a day operations and constant sampling. For me it has been so exciting to start to see the samples arriving after three years of planning. Our first dive saw us ironing out a few technical issues with the navigation system for the ROV. These sorts of things are only to be expected with such a complex underwater robot. The next three dives were spectacular. Our first site was at about 1200m below the seafloor, and as soon as we landed we saw corals –live and fossil all around us. I had a feeling of great relief that we had picked out the right sampling spot. Our first activity was to balance the colours in the high definition cameras to remove the greenish sea hue. Then we started to sample…  First we collected some seawater, then we started to collect fossil corals. We spent some time testing the various ‘tools’ that we had taken down: a slurp gun that can suck up samples, a scoop like a large shovel, and a series of nets made by Peter. The dive lasted well over 12 hours during which time we gained about 500m in height up a series of ridges and across plateaus. Since then our subsequent dives have taken us to the summit of the seamounts (200m) and down as deep as 2700m. I am now heading for bed leaving the night watch on duty… Look out for more posts soon as we get in to a routine and can share more of our findings and pictures with you.

Blog Written By: Laura Robinson

Posted in Preparing for field work

October 24th: Squishing Cups!

Squishing cups!

Have you ever seen what happens to polystyrene cups when you sink them to 4km below the surface of the sea?  We gave friends and families a chance to find out!

Because of the hydrostatic pressure of water all around the cup, at such great depths the cup is squashed into a fraction of its original size! When the cup comes back up again, it doesn’t recover.. instead it remains miniature!  As does anything that you draw or write on it!


Cups after being squished! (photo Kate Hendry) Thanks to children from the Montgomery Church in Wales Primary School and 184th Redland Brownie Pack, Bristol, for their wonderful cups!

Posted in Preparing for field work

19th October: Getting Ready

Getting ready!

Our first site is about 5 days away from Tenerife. Before arriving at the site needed everything to be ready, so over the past few days we have all played a hand in setting up the different labs and sampling protocols.

We have practiced the CTD water sampling; learnt the sediment coring protocols, and so many photos for species ID have been put up that you can barely see the walls in the main deck and control temperature labs.

We also got our first peak at the ISIS ROV and the command centre from which the ROV team control it, using almost computer game like controls to manoeuver it’s position and to “grab” the organisms we want from the sea floor using it’s arms. In the early hours of yesterday morning we arrived at sampling site number one. With our first water sampling having been carried out successfully, the ROV was sent down and is now at the seafloor. Let the coral hunting begin!

Written by: Vanessa Fairbanks

Posted in Preparing for field work

15th October: Sponges!

Did you know that some creatures can make their skeletons out of glass?

It never fails to amaze me!  My name is Kate Hendry, and I’m a research scientist at the University of Bristol who specialises in understanding the chemistry of these amazing and diverse organisms.  Diatoms, a type of single-celled algae that grows in sunlit surface waters, make ornate shells out of silica (or opal). Sponges are simple animals that live on the seafloor, and live by filtering particles and taking dissolved nutrients out of seawater. They also make a skeleton out of little “spicules” that can be needle-shaped, star-shaped, hooked and barbed.

All of these organisms need dissolved silicon to grow. I study the chemistry of the opal that sponges and diatoms produce, in order to understand more about how they grow. If we know what processes influence the chemistry of these organisms, we can then use their fossilised skeletons – that we find in deep-sea sediment cores – to figure out more about ocean chemistry in the past and how it relates to carbon cycling, ocean circulation and climatic change.

On this cruise, I have a few roles. Firstly, I’m here – obviously – to collect samples of opal!  I’ll be collecting deep-sea sponges from the seafloor, thanks to the ROV crew, and diatoms from the seawater. I’ll also be able to take samples from the sediment cores for fossilised diatom shells and sponge spicules.

Secondly, as I’ve been to sea a few times before to sample seawater, I’m here to help manage the water collection and archiving. We use large bottles, attached to a frame with various sensors (so we can measure the temperature and saltiness of the water), to collect water from different depths. The water is then brought up to the surface, where it can be measured for its oxygen content, or stored for other tests back in the UK.

Thirdly, I’m always keen to help out with outreach to the public, making podcasts (which can be seen on our Youtube channel!) of videos and interviews, and helping out with the blog. Eventually I’ll also be making a longer edited film, when I’m back on dry land! I hope very much that you enjoy the podcasts and blog, and sign up to our Twitter feed and Facebook page!

Blog written by: Kate Hendry

Posted in Preparing for field work