AKMA3 was the first expedition that Ocean Census scientists participated in. Expedition Manager, Marine Ecologist Dr Denise Swanborn, reports on what the team found.
What was the AKMA3 expedition?
AKMA (which stands for Advancing Knowledge of Methane in the Arctic) began as a project between UiT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the US and has now expanded to bring in scientists and educators around the world.
The AKMA3 expedition, led by The Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø (UiT) in collaboration with REV Ocean, was the third expedition of the programme and took place onboard the 100m icebreaker R/V Kronprins Haakon, one of the world’s most well equipped research vessels. Our expedition lasted 11 days at the start of May 2023.
Ocean Census Science Director Professor Alex Rogers and I joined a team of over 30 people, including 12 students training in various areas. Our team was highly interdisciplinary and included technicians, engineers, communicators and scientists drawn from different backgrounds and organisations, including biologists, geologists, chemists and oceanographers.
Cruise leads Giuliana Panieri and Stefan Buenz did an amazing job at pulling the team together and creating an environment in which we could all learn from each other.
Why the arctic? What were you there to do?
The Arctic is a critical region in a changing global climate, as it is particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures due to a series of interconnected processes in the Arctic Ocean.
The Barents Sea is an area that is extremely rich in cold seeps — locations where hydrocarbon-rich fluids such as methane seep up from below the seafloor. Increasing temperatures can influence the release of methane from the seabed, and methane acts as a potent greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.
At the same time, cold seeps form unique environments that support biodiverse chemosynthetic ecosystems that are specially adapted to this environment. It is crucial that we understand how methane affects coupled biological, chemical and geologic processes, especially in the Arctic Ocean.
For Ocean Census, our main expedition goal was to investigate seabed biodiversity at multiple locations at and around areas of methane seepage. This expedition was an exceptional opportunity to collect samples from these unique environments.
My PhD was focused on the relationship between seabed heterogeneity and the occurrence and distribution of seabed biodiversity, so the research goals of the AKMA3 cruise were of particular interest to me. The majority of the seabed and its associated ecosystems remain understudied.
Is this somewhere that you have been to before?
The Barents Sea is one of the most productive oceanic areas in the world and hosts important fisheries areas. It is therefore an area of interest for both scientists and resource managers and there are extensive monitoring and research programmes that take place in the Barents Sea.
For me personally, it was my first time visiting this part of the world and going this far north (we reached nearly 75 degrees north latitude). At this time of the year it never gets dark, so it was a very special experience to work night shifts when it was still light out!
What’s it like being onboard a research vessel?
The RV Kronprins Haakon is an amazing vessel, with plenty of space on board. Most of us shared 2-person cabins. Because of the number of activities that were taking place, we operated 24/7, with crew and scientists allocated to particular shifts. The ship is equipped with multiple labs for different types of scientific activities, and there are also plenty of spaces to come together and socialise including the mess room, a common room, and an observation deck on the top floor with amazing 360 degree views. There’s even a gym on board. We had daily briefings at 19:00 to talk through the day and the plan for the next, and ran multiple seminars led by the scientists on board.
Unfortunately, we were hit with bad weather during the first days of the expedition, which meant that we couldn’t do all of the activities we had planned and had to change our expedition plan. A lot of us suffered from sea sickness too, so it was the quietest time on the ship! We did try to make the most of it with social activities and it was a good bonding experience.
What kind of techniques did you use?
The main vehicle we used to collect samples from the seabed was the ROV Aurora from REV Ocean, which can descend to an incredible 6,000m depth while being controlled remotely from the surface by two pilots. The ROV has a range of sampling tools and 7 high-definition cameras enable us to see in real time via camera feed. This feed also linked to TV screens throughout the vessel, so we could stay up to date on the activities of the ROV even when not in the control room. The ROV has a manipulator arm that the pilots use to to collect organisms from the seabed very preciesly, causing minimal disturbance to their environment. It was fascinating to witness the ROV team at work.
We also collected sediment cores to investigate which organisms live in the sediment using push cores, blade cores, multicores and gravity cores.
Apart from biological sampling, a number of other scientific activities took place, such as seabed mapping (1,400 km2 of multibeam data collected in total), sampling of carbonate rocks, collecting gas samples at seep areas and deploying an autonomous surface vessel to collect water chemistry data.
What did you find?
We collected 400 biological samples from 8 different areas of the Barents Sea, which is a good achievement within 10 days. Taxonomic groups we encountered in high numbers were sponges (39 specimens), anemones (17 specimens), sea stars (21 specimens), brittle stars (26 specimens, including multiple individuals), ascidians (10 specimens, including multiple colonies), bryozoans (9 specimens, including multiple colonies), octocorals (7 specimens) and zoanthids (6 specimens).
Whilst we were onboard there was also a unique find. A deep sea mud volcano, the Borealis Mud Volcano was located in the Southwestern part of the Barents sea, at the outer part of Bjørnøyrenna (Outer Bear Island Trough), approximately 70 nautical miles south of Bear Island and at 400m depth. This is the second ever found within Norwegian waters.
The volcano is 7m wide and 2.5m high and is continuously emitting fluids rich in methane. As a unique habitat, the area hosts a rich community of seabed life including sea anemones, sponges, carnivorous sponges, sea stars, corals, sea spiders and crustaceans, as well as areas of bacteria mats and tube worms.
We also noticed during the expedition that many of the benthic ecosystems sampled were heavily impacted by trawling. We saw multiple trawl scars in the ROV sonar and ROV video data, and found a higher abundance and diversity of benthic life in crater areas inaccessible to trawls. It is likely that trawling activity has affected seafloor ecosystems in many of the surveyed areas.
What are you going to do with the results?
The samples have been sent to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH) for identification and description, or to expert taxonomists. We will use DNA barcoding or whole-genome sequencing to identify and describe the samples, before they become part of the OUMNH collection.
How did you get into your line of work?
I got my undergraduate degree in Biology from Utrecht University, during which I enjoyed an exchange at UC Santa Cruz in California. I studied for an MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management in the School of Geography and Environment at Oxford University, followed by a PhD in Marine Sciences in the Department of Zoology and Earth Sciences, from which I graduated in 2022.
I worked as a researcher for Nekton during my PhD before taking on a more project management based role as Expedition Manager for the Nekton Maldives Mission and am now working on Ocean Census. I also have a Prince2 qualification and I think these skills work well together in fieldwork.
There is not one typical path to get into this line of work, and I believe that is also the strength of it. In order to comprehend our oceans and how to protect them, we require insights from a wide range of backgrounds, skills and experiences. The oceans are vast and complex, and they offer endless opportunities for exploration and discovery. Whether you come from a scientific, technical, or creative background, there’s a place for you in unravelling the mysteries of the deep. That’s why I’d urge everyone interested in this field to embrace your curiosity and stay open to new experiences.
Could you describe a day in the life as an Expedition Manager?
Every expedition is different, so it’s tough to describe a typical day. However, that is also what I enjoy about my job. The constant change of pace and the chance to work in incredible places with amazing teams is what gets me excited.
In the lead up to expeditions much of my time is spent planning how to make our mission objectives happen, working with partners on the expedition programme, and arranging the logistics to make sure everything and everyone gets to the right place at the right time. We also need to ensure all paperwork such as permits, risk assessments and method statements are in order.
It can be hard work too at times — going to sea means working long days, adapting to unexpected scenarios, and you can be away from home for long periods. However, it’s all worth it when I see the results of our planning and the team working together in some very special places. Once the expedition is done, our job isn’t over. Post-expedition we need to make sure all equipment, people, data and samples make their way home again safely and ready for analysis by the research teams.
What’s it like being a woman in ocean science?
I’m proud to say that there are a lot of women on our team across Ocean Census and Nekton and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredibly inspiring women over the past years. It’s fantastic to see that there are many women involved in marine sciences, particularly biology. However, I do believe that there’s still progress to be made in the wider marine sector. That’s why I’m part of the IMarEST (Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology) Women’s Network, which is dedicated to addressing this very issue.
With our focus on ensuring Ocean Census has an impact globally, I’m keen to shine a light on opportunities for females to find ways to overcome barriers to pursuing a career in ocean science around the world and make sure they’re developing the right skills. There are lots of opportunities, from science to engineering to diving. Shore-based roles are also vital to making expeditions work.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently working hard on building up the Ocean Census Science Network, a vital network of taxonomists and marine scientists involved in species discovery from around the world.
The goal of Ocean Census is to accelerate the rate of species discovery, which has historically been painstakingly slow, so we have a key role to play in increasing the visibility and exchange of information around taxonomists around the world.
Anyone who needs support to start or complete a project or would like media support to raise awareness of their work can approach Ocean Census. I hope lots of people from different parts of the world will speak to us.
Watch the film to learn more about our specimen collection process onboard the expedition.