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North Sea Expedition 2017

Oceana’s marine scientists undertake the second ocean expedition to the North Sea.

Diaries

Today is the last day at sea for the crew of the Neptune, since we’re scheduled to dock in Newcastle tonight, putting an end to this expedition, the second by Oceana in the North Sea.

We have a lot of nautical miles along five countries at our back, we’ve dredged the seabed 138 times, taken 799 samples, and done over 80 ROV transects. We’ve made a total of 28 dives which, as a diver, were certainly the best moments for me.

After a few dry days, today was the last dive of the expedition and Scotland has left its mark.

It is the kingdom of the crustaceans: velvet crabs, brown crabs, lobsters...we find a pair of claws guarding the entrance to almost every crack, every hole.  

The interesting thing we came across was a velvet crab in the middle of molting. The way crustaceans grow is fascinating: they shed their shell (exoskeleton) as if it were a glove. Little by little its new shell absorbs water and hardens, growing to almost twice its size.

If I was forced to choose one of the dives that we have had the pleasure of enjoying up until today, I’d pick the Farne Islands, a National Nature Reserve on the border between English and Scottish water. The region teams with lobsters, brown crabs, lion's mane jellyfish, black wrasse, and opulent shoals of pollack, which, together to an immeasurable stretch of red dead man's fingers on the seabed, are guarded by the fascinating presence of the gray seal, the undisputed king of its coasts.

Another time zone, another UTM zone, and the circle closes. Numerous X mark the zones already conquered. The last stronghold is Newcastle: the siege begins.

The multi-beam gives us intel about the terrain. A flat zone, muddy, no rocks or slopes that would indicate something of interest. The scientists confirm the substrate and the type of local life with a few forays with the grab.

The weather makes it prudent to postpone the main observation attack with the ROV. Today it stays on deck, patiently waiting its turn.

 

Today we set out from IJmunden in the Netherlands heading out for British waters and the last leg of the expedition. The forecast predicts a hard crossing and indeed the waves are hitting the ship hard coming sideways from the south. We are passing the time reviewing the details for the last part of the expedition and gazing at the horizon to avoid sea sickness. As a Dane sailing to England in hard weather I cannot help but feel a little akin to the Vikings of old and their voyages across the very same sea that we are now traversing.

Some of our expedition members are leaving today, so we help them unload and say our goodbyes, wishing them good luck, as it is customary to do on the sea.

We took advantage of the delivery of supplies in the afternoon to visit Amsterdam, just a few kilometers away.

What can I say about this beautiful city? Simply that we had a wonderful afternoon and enjoyed its streets, canals and people and left wanting to explore the city more, but we have to get back to the boat since we’re leaving for the UK in a few hours.

We were on our way back to port this afternoon after a regular day of dredging/ROV/CTD/dredging/ROV/dredging when we spotted the enormous corpse of a whale (or most likely Balaenoptera spp.) floating on the surface. It’s ironic that we haven’t seen even one of the giants in the almost 50 days of the expedition and now we see one that’s died. A pity.

Can you imagine opening a window to the sea and being able to watch the seabed of the North Sea for two months?

Our observation methods, beyond our own sight, are multiple camera systems, sensors, underwater robots, dredgers and other sophisticated devices. In terms of documenting things in shallow waters, the dive team has enjoyed the bird colonies on the Scottish coast as well as extensive underwater kelp forests.

Acoustic mapping work is one of the few things that can be done at night during this cruise. Tonight is a travel night to a new research site north of the Bruine Bank. This mean that, due to my nocturnal sleeping cycle and the fact that we are not collecting new data tonight, it will be a night of organizing the data acquired in the past week. A rapid processing is performed to determine its quality as well as taking notes that will make finding specific files faster in the coming months.

Today was a day filled with underwater photo and videos. We started with the SPI (Sediment Profile Image) a device that penetrates the sea bottom and makes a picture of the cross-section. This way, you get an idea about the layering structure of the seabed. Two locations were visited in an area near the Doggerbank. The rest of the day was reserved for ROV. The first dive was at the same area as the SPI. Here we saw sand, shell fragments and many flatfish. The next ROV-location was quite different: a shipwreck!

I must say that I'm thoroughly enjoying our adventure on board the Neptune - it is a pleasure working with such a wonderful crew! As a researcher from the Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) I am interested in learning more about the distribution, structure and functioning of marine macrofauna within the Dutch sector of the North Sea. Together with the Oceana crew my collaborators Leo, Karin and I are combining acoustic, visual and seabed sampling techniques in order to improve our understanding of benthic habitats and communities existing in this sector of the North Sea.

...Who would have thought: it’s my turn again to write the daily journal, which means that it’s been a long time since the last time and that only means one thing: this fantastic adventure in the North Sea, full of good times, great experiences and so many miles travelled, is coming to an end. In short, it’s been great. A bit sad now but excited at the same to time to go home to those we left behind and explain how lucky we were to have lived aboard the “Neptune” these past two months.  

I'll say goodbye to you now and see you next time. Thank you, Oceana.

 

Today has been great day’s work, one of those days that makes putting together a campaign like this worthwhile. We discovered a reef of polychaete worms of the Sabellaria cf. spinulosa species at Brown Bank, in the westernmost part of the Dutch waters. We conducted an 80-minute ROV on the seabed to film the reefs that these little builders have made by cementing tubes together to create reefs up to 30 centimeters tall that cover several square meters.

The human factor is undoubtedly the most important thing on any campaign. You can have campaigns without ROV, without dredges and without CTD, but you can’t have a campaign without a crew. The Oceana crew for this campaign has stayed steady at around 18 - 20 people. In theory, it should be hard to all live together on a 50-meter boat for two long months of hard work. In theory…

Life aboard a ship is a strange thing: all the crew members, each with their daily chores, packed together in a limited space and surrounded by the sea.

The boat becomes an ecosystem where each crew member seeks their space. It takes time to adapt to the boat, the rest of the crew, the hours on and off…and once you do, you realize that every day is the same, like a time loop, over and over again like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”.

It’s been over 40 days since the expedition began. Today, a few of us met at our “movie theater” after the day’s work and we talked about how it felt like we had been here forever. It's as if we’ve always known each other and there’s no world beyond the Neptune and its horizon. But at the same time, we realized that time has flown by and that what seemed so long away at first has started to barrel towards us like a runaway train: the end of the campaign. I think this is a clear reflection of what life is like at sea, intense but rewarding every day.

It’s gratifying to be back at sea again after a few days in port. It was a shame to have to limit the dives with our Dutch colleagues Ben, Harold, Peter, Flor and Udo because of the crane and bad weather, although we did have the opportunity to return to Groningen and have a great time instead.

A day in port and we wake up in Holland, surrounded by windmills and four meters below sea level, but this time are no bizarre and unpredictable love story, only the tide. Everyone returned to their nest, burrow, shelter or bunk after a nighttime foray into the streets of Groningen, and no one deserted.

We’re moored in Eemshaven port in the Netherlands and we’re now past the halfway point in the expedition.

Throughout this time, we’ve been quite a few days without having seen land, right in the centre of the North Sea and SCUBA diving in some amazing places such as the Norwegian coast and in Scottish waters. Even though we have been enjoying being out at sea, it’s always nice to harbour and have some time off.

I've started my adventures out here in the North Sea, which was unknown territory for me until today.

Jorge (our GIS analyst) and I travelled on Monday to Eemshaven port to join the expedition for the Danish leg. For two weeks we’ll be carrying out research in several areas of interest in Dutch waters, looking for essential habitats for fish species as well as for the marine ecosystem in general.

It’s Monday evening when we arrived at Eemshaven harbour. A huge sticker “Oceana” on Icelands vessel Neptune welcomed us, along with a dozen smiling nationalities (mainly Spanish) in Oceana shirts.

Today we work up in port and although we had some new Dutch colleagues coming on board the Neptune, we didn’t get the chance to meet them before we had to leave the vessel. A few of us had to come off for a few days to make room for the Dutch divers and PhD students. It’s sad to leave our workmates behind for a few days but also exciting to get to know Groningen a little better and take away with us a bit of Dutch culture.

Ever since we left Hirtshals port in Denmark, we’ve been sailing in Danish and German waters, doing some dives with the underwater robot (ROV) and scuba diving in search of bubbling reefs.

On Saturday we came into Eemshaven, a Dutch port. And here there is such a striking contrast between the huge wind farms next to two big power stations, with the clouds of coal smoke billowing out of them.

At night we went out to party with the most of the crew on board as tomorrow is a day off. Regarding, the campaign itself, I’m really enjoying the work that we’re doing.

Well, today, it’s 29th July and we’re still on Neptune. The days go by and now the good atmosphere on board has turned into friendships.

We now know each other a lot, we all have a laugh together and we help each other out. But the most important thing is we work perfectly as a team.

Some days it can be hard being here but then there’s always someone who will make you laugh and that makes your day.

Three-bladed titans greeted us as the day broke. The huge air generators on the horizon provide electricity to a civilization that has started to feel very far from us after nine days at sea which, after treating us well for the last month or so, has started to show its true colours./p>

Today started out not so good, with strong winds and quite a lot of waves. So it was not possible to deploy the ROV in the morning so we did some grabs and CTD here and there. Later in the day there was less wind so we tried to do a ROV and that gave some good results. But OK, enough about ROVs, grabs and CTDs. I’d like to talk about another subject what is aswell important on board. And that is comunication with home on board a ship. When I started sailing, about 30 years ago now, there was no internet, no mobile phones, no wifi, no satelitte communication.

The first thing I want to do is say thank you to my fellow crew members for the sweet surprised they prepared for me the other day on my birthday.

I feel really lucky to be here for several reasons, but one of them has to be because of the great atmosphere here on board with all the crew - you’re all cool!

We kicked off the day with amazing weather. It’s been sunny and the sea conditions have been perfect to go scuba diving.

Back in the 90s, there was a TV show I used to love as a kid. Being here in the North Sea, on this marine conservation expedition, has brought back such vivid childhood memories of watching it. Each new adventure in the cartoon series Captain Planet encouraged us to understand and look after planet Earth and those messages are just as relevant now as they were back then.

This is my second year working for Oceana and also my second year in the North Sea. I am part of to the ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) team.

Our job here is quite interesting and has nothing to do with the jobs I have been doing before. Working, and at the same time taking care of the oceans, is a privilege that really makes you feel fantastic.

As you’ll know by now, we are a huge team made up of divers, biologists, sailors, photographers, underwater video specialists and more but we have come together as a team and atmosphere on board is very nice.

Today we woke up to a beautiful day in the northernmost corner of Danish waters. This is my first expedition with Oceana and I am excited to uncover what lies beneath the surface.

Working as a marine biologist on board the Neptune is hard but rewarding work. You would expect that getting covered in mud while gathering data would get you down but for me, it is refreshing and exciting compared to working in the office (The Neptune also has an unlimited supply of fresh coffee, which helps to raise our spirits).

The day rose with a calm sea and blue sky. I thought that was a sign of good omen for today’s dives in the deepest part of the areas we’re exploring in Denmark. But it wasn’t.

The winch that operates the ballast on the underwater robot (ROV) got out of bed on the wrong side this morning: it didn't want to move, despite all the efforts of our mechanics on board. So we changed the winch and then it was the pulley on the main cable that got stroppy with us.

First I would like to say a big Happy Birthday to Jordi! We hope you enjoyed the cake!

After a nice couple of relaxing days off at Hirtshals, Denmark, we are back to work (unfortunately the good weather didn’t follow us). Besides stuffing our faces with cake, we managed to deploy the ROV twice, get some grab samples and the divers went out.

Today we’re moored in the port of Hirsthals, enjoying a day off after the Norwegian leg of the expedition. We’re half way through the expedition so now is a good time as ever to stop and check over all the work done so far, and to take stock of everything we have seen, documented, explored and labeled.

The weather has been, so far, on our side – allowing us to get some good work done and making the first half of the expedition really productive – I just hope it stays that way until the end!

Thousands of pieces of fishing gear is lost at the bottom of the oceans every day, sometimes after becoming hooked on rocks and sometimes because they’ve outworn their use and people toss them into the sea. However, this abandoned fishing gear continues to fulfill its purpose for a long time. 

We saw these deadly traps on both dives we did today: a net that has already been completely colonized by sea life and a fish trap that was full of sea horses – we opened it so that they could escape certain death.

Mud covers the immense majority of ocean seabed, with even many rocky areas often covered by a thin layer of mud. They can sometimes be boring to look at, since the majority of life is taking place out of sight, underground. Worms, urchins, brittle stars, sea cucumbers, mollusks, crustaceans, fish…a rich underground life. There are other species that have adapted to these environments and developed branched forms that cling to the substrate.

Back at sea, this is my sixth expedition with Oceana, my first in the North Sea and also my debut as a logistics coordinator.

There have been many pre-campaign preparations and many hours of work focused on making sure everything runs as smoothly as possible. It seems that the effort has paid off in the end and here we are at last, aboard the Neptune with our “scientific contraptions”, doing our small part to protect the oceans each day while we sail the waters of a North Sea that has shown us its best side until now, although it does wake up in a grumpy mood some days.

Thirtieth day on board and almost half the expedition is over. I feel extremely welcomed by the wild North Sea and, for the time being, it’s been showing its best side. Outstanding temperatures, light passing rains and more than acceptable conditions at sea. We left Scotland after seeing an extensive variety of species and magnificent vertical scenery. Meanwhile, we’ve been delighted with Norway’s dreamlike landscapes, with jutting granite and abyssal walls with laminar edges, where dives seem to pass in an instant and breaks with friends are a gift…

It’s interesting how they react when they see us coming: they raise their heads, eye each other, and when one makes the first move towards escape, the others follow. They stop a few meters away (a false precaution and hardly effective) to satisfy their curiosity. They watch us, watch each other, and exchange concerns in a strange language, to end the interaction with a half turn and a cold goodbye after a brief greeting. The only trail in their wake are a few waves in the water, or a few forgotten footsteps on the beach.

When we dive in tropical seas the water is a transparent, warm blue – ideal conditions. Yet 15 days into the campaign we’ve been diving in cloudy, green and cold water and we’re delighted. We’ve found ecosystems similar to those in warm water in both Scotland and Norway, that is, “if you can call temperatures of 9ºC” warm. This ecosystem in an authentic forest, “the enchanted forest”. A kelp forest (kelpos) several meters high has covered the bottom on every dive up to 20 meters deep, blocking our view of the rock.

It’s taken many years for this wish to finally come true: to document underwater life in the cold waters off the Norwegian coast. This is what we have been doing for the last few days. I’m really happy to be one of the first to explore these sea bottoms and to finally find the one of the “top ten” fish in the North Sea: the Atlantic wolf fish.     

At twenty-five metres from the ocean surface and a water temperature of 9ºC, I came up across a young puffer fish. I think my eyes were bigger than his when I realised what it was in front of me.

Today, like most days, when I got up it was already daybreak. The sun looked amazing (it was actually raining) but I was in a good mood and left the bedroom to go and have breakfast with the crew and to prepare ourselves for another day lost out at sea near Norway - not knowing what date of the month or day of the week it was! But what I did know was that we were going to have another adventure.

We’re kicking off Monday ready and raring to go after our first stop in the port of Haugesund in Norway. At 7 am we were already lowering the two small boats into the water – today we’re going to be diving!

At lunch time, we sheltered between some islands about 8 miles off the coast and it’s here where we did the second dive of the day. The scenery is spectacular and the feeling you get from being here is just amazing! It’s my first time as a diver for Oceana and I feel very fortunate to be able to do live and share this experience with all the team. Thank you all!

This is my first campaign with Oceana, my job is to captain an inflatable and help with ROV maneuvers and dredges on deck. The experiences of the past fourteen days of sailing in Scotland were unbeatable, and we had great weather, except today, Sunday, as we’re docked at a Norwegian port and the day is gray and rainy.

My name is Adolfo De Los Ríos Cerón, I’m 23 years old and I captain of one of the campaign’s inflatable boats. I finished the advanced course in underwater and hyperbaric operations two months ago and I was offered this opportunity just as soon as I was done. Honestly, I feel extremely lucky that my first job is like this one. In terms of my shipmates, there’s an extraordinary atmosphere on board: everyone is warm, pleasant and very hardworking. In short, so far this campaign is looking like a fantastic and very, very productive job. LET'S KEEP ON GOING, OCEANA TEAM!

 

Sometimes you take a dive in fresh water, other times in salt water. Today, the ROV had to dive in water with gas. These are small areas that turn out to have gaseous activity below the seafloor; this gas sometimes breaks through the surface in a big soap bubble (at least that’s how I imagine it).

As luck would have it, today not only were we able to dive in these areas but we also came across not one, but two “northern dogfish”. For biology beginners, like me, these are fish with very big mouths, menacing, the kind that like to hide beneath rocks.

Today we arrived to the middle of the North Sea. We woke up to some some lousy weather; cold, rain and windy. Today feels more like winter in stark contrast to yesterday  where we had a summerday. It‘s incredible how the weather can change so fast out here,  but I guess we are right in the heart of the ¨North¨ Sea.

Another great day, made even better by sunny weather that reminded us that it’s actually summertime. It was honestly a gift that we all thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed. But the horizon looked a bit different today and we weren’t able to get the full impact of its immense beauty because a huge oil platform was never out of our sight, an unfortunate reminder of all the damage they do to the seabed.  A shame.

 

Today we arrived at Devil’s Hole, here there are several muddy trenches and our plan for the day was to look for sea pens using the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). The weather was on our side, the sea was calm and the currents were weak, perfect for the ROV! In fact, we managed to complete four ROV dives!

We took advantage of a still-calm sea and filled the air tanks in the inflatables with twice the amount of air and packed some sandwiches with a plan to perform two dives on the coast while the Neptune is out working with the ROV and taking care of some other loose ends.

Today’s diary comes to you from a guest on board the Neptune, from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) - an organisation which advises the UK government on conservation matters. Oceana are hosting two members of staff from JNCC on the first leg of the North Sea survey and hopefully the information collected in the waters off Scotland will help ourselves, Scottish Natural Heritage and Marine Scotland add to the picture of what the seabed habitat looks like in these areas. In return, we are getting stuck in to lend a hand with grab sampling and assisting wherever we can.

Today was a great day. The weather got steadily better and the waves dropped to nearly calm. We started taking grabs off the Moray Firth coast, finding everything from worms to sea squirts. Deeper grabs produced brittlestars with enormous long arms twisting round in the dishes as photos were taken. The best find of the day was a tiny hermit crab from over 100m depth. We’re not sure which species it is, so we’ll let him be looked at by experts after the survey has finished.

Back on board the Neptune to launch our second research campaign in the waters of the North Sea. There’s rough weather today, so the work we do on board is completely different: material checks, operations tests, meetings and “office work” take up most of our day. However, today I would like to talk about something that has made it possible for us to be here right now doing research in this sea: what goes in to preparing the campaign, not only at a purely scientific level but in terms of administration.

We have a very special contraption sailing on board the Neptune. Helena (marine mcientist and expert in morning briefings) has named it the Grabator. It is something like a rustic washing machine that cleans the seabed samples that we take with the grab. Grabator basically consists of a bucket with a set of sieves, a pipe to remove the sand and another one to drain the water. We’ve used it a few times and both times it’s managed to get everyone’s attention.

After more than two days loading and preparing the vessel here in Edinburgh’s Leith port, the Neptune’s engines started roaring at 11pm. It was just after midnight when the lock gates opened and we headed out to the North Sea. Yay, we’ve finally set sail!

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