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North Sea Expedition 2016

Oceana’s marine scientists undertook a two-month, at-sea expedition to document seafloor habitats and species in the North Sea

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Diaries

This morning I woke-up tired. Maybe it was from the weight of many long days of work at sea. Or maybe it was the motionless boat at the harbor making sleeping light than normal. I don’t know, but either way I was happy knowing that this was the last day. Sad too, as it meant saying goodbye to many great people. Although I had the pleasure of spending just over two weeks with this crew, I still felt that I had fully blended in.

Fifty-four days ago the Oceana crew embarked on this expedition that today is coming to an end. My mission was to document the expedition visually and I have tried to capture all the beauty this sea beholds: the light, scenery, its character and inhabitants. I’ve also managed to show all the hard work my workmates put in every day.

Today in Rotterdam, I’m gathering my things together while looking forward to going home to be with my family after covering 1600 nautical miles across the North Sea!

Today is the last day at sea and we have been able to dive the ROV just once, this morning. Since then the current and waves have risen meaning the work here is coming to an end. The crew has started to think about the way back to habour and going home. Now our last duty, rally all the staff together and prepare the boat for its trip back. Tomorrow we arrive at habour and then it will be time to say our goodbyes. The expedition has been very interesting for me; a nice job with nice people and for a good purpose - perfect!

We’re approaching the end of our expedition and we’re still doing ROV dives and taking grabs, and searching for a shipwreck to snorkel around – we haven't managed to find any since Claver Bank in Norway! The last days of an expedition always go by so quickly but we’re working hard to get all the work we planned done in time.

 

Something changed. After many days of studying silty sea beds we now reached the Klaverbank. It’s great to look at the live underwater coverage of rocks and pebbles again. Large dead man’s fingers, edible crabs, sponges and other hard substrate species come by. For me, as a Dutch biologist, this area always fascinated me and now I am here seeing it!

Another change is harder to notice, there’s a subtle nervousness in the air.  After so many days at sea the expedition is reaching an end. The crew is still working hard but their thoughts are turning. Home is in the air!

This week we’ve had a quiet sea and excellent weather. Through the ROV we saw miles of sea beds; sandy ones with stream ripples, or clay ones with a bubbly texture, or with pits and tiny hills with a crater on the top, like small volcanoes: worm holes?  In general just a few living creatures seen, most are hidden. We saw some funny flat fish, clumsy hermit crabs and a langoustine peeping from his grotto.

The last days have been calm and mild, and today the sun has peeked through the clouds again. The temperature today is also in the better range, and the northern girls have jumped into their shorts and t-shirts, and we are washing the mud-splashing grabs in bare legs and rubber boots – just like being kids again. Away from the grabs, and inside sheltered from the sun, we sat glued to the screen, watching endless fields of muddy sand, looking for life on the bottom.

You learn a lot about patience when working on research vessels. There are many things which are beyond your control; the weather and currents being the most obvious ones. At any time you need to be able to adjust your plans and work under the prevailing conditions. Things may also break down and you need to re-plan and see if there is some other work that could be done instead. Often the connections to the outside world are also poor when offshore and you are only able to communicate with your colleagues in office and family randomly, not necessarily when you need to.

Yesterday’s massive swells allowed us to do nothing but grabs…and grabs we made…countless numbers of them!

Waking up this morning, we were excited to see the swells had calmed down enough to launch the ROV. Straight after breakfast the ROV was on its way to the bottom of Gasfonteinen, in Dutch waters. Gasfonteinen is known for pockmark structures.

Pockmarks are made from methane gasses slowly leaking up through the bottom, creating dips in the seafloor, as the gas pockets deeper in the bottom, are depleted.

After a night sailing on a pretty bumpy sea we arrived in Dutch waters, in the area named Gasfontijnen. In Dutch, this literally means ‘fountains of gas’, or the so-called ‘pockmarks’.

Pockmarks are craters in the seabed caused by gas and liquids erupting and streaming through the sediments.

It’s our last day in the Vesterhavet area and today we’re 20 miles from the coast of Denmark. It’s a huge sandbank area here in which, even though we’re far from the coast, the depths are often only 10 metres deep.

When we snorkel in a sandbank, we always hope to find some sea rocks where species shelter and take refuge, like an oasis in the middle of a desert. During toda’s dive we didn’t find one single rock; it’s just sand and more sand!

Dawn breaks and today looks like it’s going to be a lovely day; no wind and the sea is calmer than usual. Today’s work plan is to dive around the 4 shipwrecks that Jack has spotted on the nautical map of the area. We head to the first point on the map and couldn’t see anything. There the water had an almost green-like colour that reminds me of a swamp in summer. We move on to the next point and still there was nothing sticking out of sea bed. We made it to the final point on the map, but once again, no shipwreck.

Allow me to me introduce myself. My name is Floris and I’m the other volunteer from the Netherlands’ Anemoon foundation and I’ve come onboard for the last two weeks of the expedition. I can’t say I am one of the youngest here but it is my first time on such an expedition. What strikes me most is this community of friendly and highly specialized people on-board. Being a biologist I am interested most in the biological work carried out by Cecilie and Hanna.

Yesterday I arrived in Denmark with my colleague Floris Bennema by train from The Netherlands - a long and arduous train journey with several transfers. Finally, we boarded the last scheduled train to the remote fishing town of Thyboron, half-way up the sparsely populated peninsula of Jutland, (Jylland), Denmark. It was as if it was waiting just for us, with very few other passengers aboard as it departed in the late sun.

Today was my first full day on the Neptune. I came onboard yesterday to replace Helena who finished her shift and returned back to her dry office. I’m delighted to be at sea once again and waking up to fresh sea air is always lovely. Well, at least when it happens that is. Last night we remained at the harbor as we waited for a couple more arrivals and one vital delivery for the ROV. On top of the delay we regrettably docked next to a fishmeal factory replacing that refreshing sea breeze with the unsavory stench of rotten fish.

Today started off just like the last few days; grey, cold and windy. Nothing new there considering it is the North Sea, even though we’re in the middle of August! On days like this, our work becomes a bit monotonous: carry out checks on the ROV, following up the maintenance plan and checking that everything works fine. Today, we made the most of it being a Monday to go and buy some supplies from a hardware store.

We’re stuck in Denmark unable to work in the waters because of the weather conditions; waves 6 metres high, 35-knot winds mean that we couldn’t do any dives with the ROV or snorkel. So, days like that when that happens are used to carry out maintenance work and tweaking all our equipment so that when the weather improves we can be 100% ready to work. It’s a real shame to be stuck here unable to work properly but I guess that is the North Sea for you: you have to adapt to the weather here.

 

With three quarters of the journey done, it’s a weird thing just looking back at the past month. You might remember things differently than other crew members. You notice some slight changes that have been happening slowly. But will never know when they started.

After the nice and comfortable depths of Norway, our current location is the Jutland Bank, a place that was witness to the biggest naval battle in history. I can’t help but wonder how many interesting things are below you when you are cruising - things that will remain hidden for many more years to come.

The weather the last few weeks has been rough, but that is to be expected in these Nordic seas. It has been a bit of a challenge for the ROV pilots, but for the "happy grabbers" it has been heaven. Every time the waves, or the current, have been too strong for the ROV to be deployed, or just for the fun of it, we made a grab. So, into the "Oompa Loompa" pants, water in the hose, and the meshes ready - washing grabs it is.

Finally, after checking the weather again and again, it seemed that there was a little window of opportunity to make our passage from Norway to Denmark (around 100 nm). That was our best chance, since, according to the forecast, Friday afternoon will get worse again. So yesterday night we secured everything as best as we could, just in case we still have the wind and waves hammering against the boat. So, this morning, at 6:00 a.m., the engines of our floating home got to work and we finally left rainy (but beautiful) Norway behind.

We’re still anchored around the Egersund Norway area, tucked up in a beautiful fjord, avoiding brutal sea conditions out at sea. We started the day with a scuba dive, very close to where we are anchored.

We headed for a big rock that we found on yesterday’s dive. It was sitting at 14 meters and covered with dead man’s fingers and anemones. We then continued the dive, following steep rocks along the shoreline. Shortly thereafter Juan Cuetos spotted a very photogenic male lumpsucker. Not an unusual find, but always a pleasure to see.

Today we woke up, anchor still down, to nice views of the Fjord near Egersund.

But only the weather was not so nice, still a lot of cold fresh wind with a force of 25-30 knots with gusts of 30, and of course, the rain.

Now I understand why it is so nice, green and clean in Norway – it's thanks to the rain.

After repairing the air bottles, which were damaged by the storm yesterday, and replacing the filter of the air compressor and filling the bottles with the fresh air of Norway, the divers went for a dive.

Today we have experienced the real North Sea!

Yesterday we snorkeled in a small bay south of Norway and later spent the night at anchor. In the morning we set out to find some better shelter form the storm and then went on our way to a small fjord.

We only travelled about miles out to sea but it was enough to see that a 50-metre boat like ours can be too big or even too small for the waves on a day like today.

 

Ever since I was small the sea has given me a feeling of serenity. From land I have often wondered what it is about the sea that gives me that sensation: the crystal-like flatness of a clam sea that reflects the sky above it just like a mirror or stormy weather days with powerful gusts of wind that thrust up waves as big as buildings. The oceans have always fascinated me in all its ways, shapes and sizes.

After a number of dives in Norway in which we didn’t manage to see what we wanted to, today we finally caught a glimpse of some seals. If you try and get close to them, as we did, they quickly swim off and it’s impossible to see them. However, if you remain calm, they get curious and they come towards you, look at you and swirl around you. It was an amazing experience, and I hope to see many more during this expedition campaign.

 

An early morning robotic dive, even when we are past the half-point on this campaign, each day is unique. The weather forecast is never reassuring, for it is always at the border of being unfeasible.

At noon, the divers go under Norwegian waters. Such is their devotion to the cause that even after doing their allotted time underwater, they spend their time chasing some playful seals on the surface. Playful because they let enough distance from humans to be seen, but not to be touched.

Yesterday night the crew from Panthalassa, including the model Almudena Fernandez and the surfer Aritz Aranburu, embarked Neptune with all their cameras, gear and surfboards. Being on a movie set was what it felt like being on board Neptune today. Everywhere you went there were cameras, and pretty people.

Today, like yesterday, the weather has not been on our side; the waves are big. Fortunately, the Norwegian coast has a multitude of islets and rocks where we can shelter to go diving. On both days we were able to record vast forests of kelp (Laminaria saccorhiza), accompanied with the usual inhabitants found there such as echinoderms, nudibranchs, lots of epiphyte plants living on the leaves of bigger plants.

Today the weather was very rough. Strong winds made sea conditions very unfavorable for just about anything we did. Off shore the waves reached three meters making ROV dives impossible. We decided to stay closer to shore and hide behind small rocky islands for calmer conditions. That made acceptable conditions for scuba dives.

After many days at sea it’s nice to be back on land again.

Today is Sunday, you think to yourself: “that’s nice, a day of rest…”

But no. Instead of a lazy day we decided to go on a trip to see the most famous overhanging rock rising above the beautiful Lynsefjord.

The journey involved a ferry and a bus ride through the breathtaking Norwegian landscape and once we thought we arrived, we still needed a pretty difficult but beautiful 3.5 km hike to reach the rock in the pouring rain.

A marine animal must specialise in order to survive at sea, either to feed itself, defend itself from predators, move…for almost everything. Many birds are perfectly adapted to this environment, able to cross or live in the middle of the marine environment without the possibility of resting on something firm. Living conditions are so harsh that if an animal is injured or weak, it will inevitably end up falling prey to the waves.

According to Greek mythology, the Chimera was a monstrous hybrid with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a dragon. A “chimera” can also refer to a dream or illusion, a product of the imagination that is hoped or wished for in spite of being almost impossible to achieve.

We are in Norwegian waters and we’re going to work with the ROV at 180 m down and are excited about what we're going to find down there.

“I’d like to be - under the sea - in an octopus’s garden - in the shade” – The Beatles, Octopus’s Garden.

Today, the ROV and the samples taken in the Norwegian trench uncovered huge numbers of octopi. I am sure that the Beatles must have imagined the Octopus’s garden to be in the North Sea.

The mud samples coming up with the grab is so thick it takes us ten minutes to filter the sand from the shells, worms and other marine organisms. You can almost cut a piece of the mud like a piece of cake!

Here, you watch a guy throw a Grab at the water, and bring up Mud.

Down you can see how 4 Teletubbies wash up that mud, pick up the itty-bitty pieces that stay through the mesh and put them carefully in Little labeled plastic containers.

Middle-level, you notice a Smart guy (must be a scientist) looking at those itty-bitty pieces through a microscope.

Right (or Starboard) Three dry-suits inhabited by men get their cameras ready to take some cool-ass videos and photos

Up, a lonely Jack Get things down and up again.

We are in the middle of the North Sea, where the waters of five countries –the United Kingdom, Holland, Germany, Denmark and Norway– meet. The day began with an unpredictable sea, that is, a sea that’s on the verge of not letting us work. We’ve done some dredging as we wait for conditions to improve a bit, as the forecasts predicted. Sandy/muddy area with various species of molluscs. We finally took the ROV out and it seems that the bottom is full of starfish and hermit crabs, like the Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James). It would have been better if it had been yesterday.

Where the sky ends, the ocean begins. This is where we are. We arrived at the Devil’s Hole yesterday in calm weather, but we woke up this morning with the sky wrapped in low grey clouds. There is nothing to break the horizon - no ships, no platforms, no land. It seems like we are as far from everything as you can get - an island floating freely in the great cold nothing. Such isolation might seem daunting but when you’re undertaking your life passion surrounded by friendly and enthusiastic colleagues, it’s not a concern.

Now the first two expedition weeks have passed, I’d like to give a summary of how productive this North Sea campaign has been so far. We have now visited 2 out of 4 countries and documented 5 of our selected areas. In those areas, we have performed 22 ROV dives, 6 Scuba dives, 18 CDTs and 55 Van Veen grabs, processing a total of 165 specimen samples (some released, some fixed and kept) with both the grabs and the ROV’s arm, plus 55 (one per grab) sediment samples of 3 different granulometries.

Our departure from Grimsby was at 6 a.m. heading for the Humber grounds again. Due to the fact that the current was high we could not get the ROV or the divers in the water so we did a couple of grabs and CTD in some different positions. After the grabs we anchored near a wreck to wait for the current to ease a bit to dive.

It has only been two days on-board but the Brussels lobbyists are slowly getting the hang of it. We are finally starting to develop our seamen’s legs: once we stepped of the ship yesterday evening in Grimsby we felt that our body was still swaying from the boat’s movement.

For the first time in many years staff from our policy office in Brussels has joined an Oceana expedition in the North Sea aboard the Neptune. Usually more used to European meetings, political negotiations and the air-conditioned lobbies of the European Parliament, the policy team joined the boat’s crew in Grimsby, UK. At first impression the Neptune is huge (50 meters long!) and quite comfortable with well-equipped cabins, a crew of 9 Icelandic guys and even a small gym room organised between the engines in the hull!

Rarely does an expedition run without mishaps or technical failures and our first technical failure happened in the first week. After several successful dives with our CTD - a device capable of measuring water temperature, salinity, pH, depth, oxygen, depth and chlorophyll - it suddenly stopped working. We attempted to get it running again while at sea, with technical support from the manufacturer in the UK, but with no luck. The decision was made to bring it back to the manufacturer for repair when the Neptune was at dock in Grimsby.

After ten days at-sea, today we arrived at Grimsby harbour. Grimsby, a small town located near the Humber River, will provide us with some dry land and a few parts to repair and maintain our equipment in good shape and carry on with our work. We had spent a few days coordinating our stay in these waters with the port authority and with our Madrid office – they always com to the rescue when we don’t have internet connection or need some extra help.

In our expeditions we use high-definition cameras that can be used in depths of several hundred metres, a robot that can work at 1,000 metres deep, a CTD than can be used at 7,000 metres deep and lenses, computers, GPS, mobiles and other electronic equipment, so you can see we use a whole array of high technology stuff.  We don´t just have this stuff on-board the boat; we submerge it several hundred metres deep in to the ocean so we can explore the sea beds.

It’s 5 in the morning and dawn is rising in The Humber. Today, like every day, I make myself a coffee and take it up to the Neptune’s stern to enjoy the reflections of the sunrise colours on the North Sea.

A 50-day expedition, 4 countries, thousands of miles to sail, 20 people on-board; 11 from Oceana and 9 crew.  So far, we’ve been on-board 9 days, sailed in the waters of two different countries and navigated 450 miles. Today is our first dive and we’re 70 miles from the coast, at a depth of 20 metres with 4 divers and 1 sandbank. We’ve seen some rocks full of octocorallia, 1 edible crab crawling around the sand, 2 nudibranchs laying eggs, some small crabs, 3 sturgeons that follow us around everywhere…and many more!

 

We’re taking samples today in the Norfolk sandbanks and surrounding areas. We’re in area between two zones that are protected zones but lack an efficient management plan, and a passageway that is used by trawlers. It goes without saying that the area has dozens of offshore oil-rigs.

The tides are strong. And in these sea beds, poutings and flat fish live and move around freely and small sand eels bury themselves in the sand.

Today we had the opportunity to look into a different setting than we were previously used to - wreckages! Sunken iron colossi that, without it being their original purpose, ended up as a home to some creatures in the North sea.

Carrying out a campaign like this requires a great deal of coordination. Some of the operations involve the handling of very sensitive equipment and also in this area we have the added difficulty of the currents and changes in the tide. Today, while we were performing 3 ROV operations and various others with the dredge, we were planning the dives for tomorrow and the entry into port within the next week, so that everything is properly organised. Entry into port for a boat like the Neptune requires taking several factors into account.

We continue our expedition up and down the length and breadth of the North Sea with news of bad weather, and today the rough sea has prevented us from bringing out the ROV to dive, and so we have had to settle for dropping the dredge and the CTD. The dredge has brought us some very interesting results, including a great many shells, sea urchins and a fish that was not a fish, the Branchiostoma lanceolatum (a kind of chordate that is less evolved than a fish).

Today we moved to British waters and to the more sandy part of the Cleaver Bank. We had three successful ROV trips to the banks. We saw the nice side of the ocean floor - beautiful ripples, and a few scattered stones. The areas were full of life with, for example, dragonets, weeverfish, hermit crabs, Ross corals (not a real coral but a bryozoan one), starfish and plenty of flat fish.

It’s always exciting to start a new expedition. There are a large number of things that have to work perfectly, which requires many months of preparation and, above all, a great team of people. This time, we are leaving behind the old familiar seas (the Mediterranean and the Baltic, the Iberian and Macaronesian Atlantic) to discover what lurks beneath the surface of the North Sea. This sea, surrounded by the countries of northern Europe, has suffered a long list of impacts over countless years, which have been closely related to the development of these bordering countries.

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