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Arctic Deep – Voyage Update #1

The Arctic depths slowly shares its secrets as the expedition strives further north.

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After a week at sea, the Arctic Deep expedition has surveyed, scanned, and ROV dived its way north along the Knipovich Ridge from Tromsø. Momentarily slowed by an Arctic storm, RV Kronprins Haakon now sits just shy of 80 degrees North, well into the Arctic Circle of permanent daylight. The team now approaches the Jotul hydrothermal vent field, searching for the life that has evolved to survive this extreme environment.

“Do you know the two rules for leaving port?”

…asks the captain, as horizontal sleet streaks across the lamplight on the well-lit dock 10m below the bridge. “Never leave on a Friday, and always make a starboard turn.”

The clock ticks past 10pm Friday, 3rd May. It is a few hours after we hoped to depart, but as with any expedition of this scale and complexity, small things can keep the handbrake on momentarily. In this case, a very small but very important cable is arriving on a flight from Oslo.

A historically superstitious bunch, the men and women who work at sea are somewhat inconsistently wedded to idiosyncratic traditions. Whistling is still banned, bananas now seem tolerated, for example. Perhaps guided by the gods of the sea, our vital equipment arrived, and we were able to set off, at roughly 12:05am Saturday. After completing the mostly unnecessary starboard turn, we were off.

The passage through the fjords from Tromsø at night is breathtaking. The greyscale midnight sun of the Arctic illuminates both ocean and mountains. After passing the island of Treingan to our starboard, we ventured into the open sea. Our scientific mission, and by extension, our passage plan, is designed around the contours of  the Knipovich Ridge.

Slightly larger and no less dramatic than the Grand Canyon (if somewhat obscured by 3 kilometres of seawater), this northernmost section of the mid-Atlantic ridge is a hotbed of geographic intrigue. The expedition hopes that this fractal seafloor harbours biological secrets in equal measure.

The deep sea has less biodiversity than shallower waters. The lack of sunlight leads to more specialised and fragmented ecosystems. Unlike a coral reef bustling with life, deep-sea biologists require a multidisciplinary approach to locate and sample isolated islands of life in this extreme environment.

The expedition employs three types of technology to collect the samples and data vital to our research, and we work through all three over the first few days heading north. The coring devices for taking sediment (and associated organisms) samples, the CTD, and the ROV. Positioned on a scale of sophistication, each piece has a team of scientists and specialist technicians eagerly awaiting the return of their instruments.

"This data serves as the sensory backbone for our expedition"

One of the simplest systems on board, the multi-core sampler, is entirely mechanical. It uses gravity and suction to extract samples from the seafloor. Clear Perspex tubes, arranged around a steel cage weighted with lead, hit the ocean floor, pushing into the sediment. These ‘cores’ are held in place by suction until spring-loaded arms secure the core samples inside.

On another level of complexity, and indispensable for its role in mapping the water column’s physical properties, the CTD plunges into the icy depths, recording the conductivity (C), temperature (T), and depth (D) of the surrounding seawater. This data provides vital clues about the ocean’s salinity and thermal structure and serves as the sensory backbone for our expedition, complementing the limited dimensions of maps and sonar scans.

The CTD is our underwater smoke detector, hunting for signs of hydrothermal vents. The centrepiece of our sampling efforts is, of course, REV Ocean’s ROV Aurora, deployed from its midship hangar – the ‘moonpool’; this engineering marvel serves as the eyes and arms of the expedition on the seafloor.

 

Three days into the expedition and the weather has been bucolic. However, just as we began to dive and sample the deep sea mounts and canyon offshoots of the ridge network, the Arctic begins to flex its force. When I inquired about the storm forecasts I had nervously watched on my phone, Ida, the first officer, reassured me with a smile, “On this vessel, you don’t really need to check the weather.”

Within a day the wind was well above 50 knots and waves reached 6 or 7 meters—just as we approached crucial dive sites. However, the RV Kronprins Haakon remained remarkably stable. Even through a storm at 77 degrees north, the ship’s dynamic positioning system kept us nearly perfectly aligned above the ROV, some 3,000 meters below.

In an expedition full of remarkable feats, it’s worth reflecting just how incredible it is to be maintaining full-depth ROV operations through a storm that would likely be terminal to most other expeditions. “The heading is the key,” Jon, the chief officer stated calmly as he adjusted controls in the aft bridge conning station.  As he speaks, the azimuth thrusters precisely countered the wind and wave forces, keeping us optimally positioned above our target.

“If we really need to, we can switch on the other two generators, but running with two is fine for now,” Jon adds. When I realise that we are only running off half the total power output, and the crew have not seen the need to start the other engines, I start to think any nerves were misplaced.

"Guiding the ROV into the moonpool like a piece in a giant arcade game, retrieving its multimillion-euro prize"

Still, the storm has got significantly worse in the eight hours the ROV is down. By the time we needed to bring the ROV home, it was approaching Beaufort force 11 (any higher becomes officially a hurricane). And like any good pilot, you need to have as many landings as you have take-offs. So, as the ship’s main winch reeled in Aurora to just below the hull, Thor, one of the two-man team of ROV pilots now in a hangar, took over with a remote control. Guiding the ROV into the moonpool like a piece in a giant, hydraulically powered arcade game, retrieving its multimillion-euro prize.

 

The irony of referring to the tempestuous opening in the centre of the ship as a ‘moonpool’ in the middle of an Arctic storm did not escape us. As the lower shell doors opened, the freezing water churned into a frenzy, but Aurora returned home, albeit slightly faster than usual.

Once the ROV and its samples hit the deck, the science teams kick into gear. Everything needs to be catalogued, identified, and preserved. There’s a critical window of opportunity right after a deep-sea specimen surfaces and before it is preserved, for photography. This is a vital part of the classification process, but also an opportunity to appreciate the detail of the overlooked. While chemicals like ethanol and formalin are excellent for long-term preservation, they unfortunately degrade the delicate pigments that add vibrancy to these images. Capturing these details through macro photography allows us to document and share the vibrant, often unseen beauty of marine life before it fades.

Macro photography has emerged as a pivotal tool for taxonomists and a treasure trove for science communication. Normally, life at a large scale is what we’re accustomed to—our eyes perceive the world roughly equivalent to a fixed 35mm or 50mm lens. If you relax your focus and stare ahead, you can almost discern the frame edges in your peripheral vision.

In our expedition, we utilise a specialised lens, specifically the 105mm Nikon Nikkor ZMC, which features a significantly shallow depth of field. Paired with a DSLR camera, this lens brings the minute world into startling clarity. This realm, long the domain of scientists like taxonomists, becomes accessible to us all through macro photography. It enables those without the training to use microscopes or access to specimens to see the exquisite details of the natural world with phenomenal clarity.

The vertebrate and invertebrate samples collected from the southern Knipovich Ridge are currently being examined for potential new species. The expedition now turns its attention to the geothermally active Jotul field, its hydrothermal vents, and the unique life that inhabits them. The early CTD scans are promising, and the data provided by the geology focussed R/V Maria S. Merian expedition of 2022 has given us some precise targets to aim for, but seeing the signs of something and locating it 3000m down are two entirely different things…

 

Thanks to Jack for sharing this voyage update. This expedition is led by The Nippon Foundation-Nekton Ocean Census Alliance, UiT (The Arctic University of Norway), and REV Ocean.

Image Credits: Ocean Census

 

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