Bob Embley: Research At Sea
While I am at sea if varies at bit. I am often in charge of the cruise as the chief scientist which means I am responsible for what goes on before the cruise in terms of planning, writing the proposal that funds the work, planning the cruise and making sure we have the scientific party that is right for that particular project at sea with us. While at sea it is very much a team effort and we plan day-by-day what we are going to do. On some cruises like the Ocean Exploration it is often uncertain what we will find and it is an exploratory type of adventure. At sea it can be a hostile environment. In some areas of the world the weather is not very good. We have several different challenges, one of which is the actual state of the sea and how that affects our work. Many times we cannot use some of our instruments and cannot put them in the ocean if the sea is too rough because we will damage them or cannot get any usable data. We have to judge what we can and cannot do based on what the weather is like. We also have equipment challenges because equipment can to awry and we develop problems with our mapping and sensing systems, which need to be fixed. Usually we have multiple things to do so we can replace one task with another at different times. Then there is the challenge of what we are seeing and that is the fun challenge; understanding in real time what we are seeing in the field.
We have a lot of people on board who are there to get samples. We have biologists, microbiologists, geologists, and chemists and they all require different types of samples. We have specialized samplers particularly for the chemistry and in some cases for the microbiology. As soon as the ROV is down we have our scientists talking to the ROV pilots and they get samples by either a suction sampler device or water pumping or just picking up a rock or animal and putting it in the basket and stowing them away. We generally have somewhere in the order or fifty or more samples of various kinds that the ROV has in it. As soon as the ROV is on deck there is a rush to get these samples out, as some of these are time sensitive, some oxidize, some animals start changing. There is a big rush for a half hour or so and then once they get their samples they go back to the lab and start working on them.
We started using robotic vehicles over a decade ago and it was a real learning experience. In contrast to a human occupied vehicle where maybe one or two scientists go to the seafloor and come up and relate what they saw to the rest of the group on board. It’s only a real time experience to those who are in the submersible. With an ROV we quickly learned it was a different experience because we could have a full range of experts looking at the same image at the same time and making real time decisions. We find this extremely important in the exploration mode because we do want to make good decisions. If you were not there at the same time looking at the images it would be much more difficult. We find it can be chaotic with so many people interested in what is going on in a new area, and many people talking at once. But it does boil down to communication and the way people work and it is a very efficient way to maximize such a multidisciplinary group.