Cruise 1: Days 1-6 trials, tribulations and triumphs

By Rich Chiverrell and co from the edge of the shelf

Developed as a concept 3-4 years ago, and planned over the last 2 years with massive input from across the Britice-Chrono team and Colm Ó Cofaigh (Marine Theme Leader), on Monday 14th July it finally began to happen, Cruise 1 (JC106) of the NERC Consortium Project Britice-Chrono. The vessel, the RRS James Cook was waiting for us moored at the wharfside of the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in Southampton as the various team members mobilised. For me this would be a first, after running the terrestrial field programme for the past 18 months, and now for something completely different – having visited numerous boulders, quarries and cliff sections, the chance to see and sample the extensive offshore sediment and landform record of the decline/collapse for the former British-Irish Ice Sheet (BIIS).

The leaving of Southampton

The leaving of Southampton

Individual preparations for an undertaking like this began months ago; spending 3-6 weeks living offshore on a state-of-the-art research vessel does not happen overnight. In June marine survey or personal survival training qualifications were needed. This involved 7/8 hours of training and tests at the Fleetwood Nautical Campus, which covered survival equipment, how to abandon ship from a 5m platform and in the appropriate survival gear (immersion suites, life jackets, entering life-rafts, management of life rafts, individual and group mobility in the water). All this in a state-of-the-art 8-9m deep wave simulator, where for the finale we abandoned ship from 5m, in the dark, smoke everywhere, rainfall and spray, into a wave churning pool, after 5-10 mins in the life-raft mal-de-mer was looming! Medical certification testifying fitness to work was also needed. And then on to other tasks, helping with permissions for geophysical survey and coring in Irish, English, Welsh, Manx and Scottish waters all were required; remarkably all interpret EU law differently and this resulted in a major undertaking for Colm Ó Cofaigh amongst many others.

It was with a little trepidation and expectation that I first visited the RRS James Cook on Monday to drop of personal luggage and cameras (on board duties for me included amateur film maker and outreach obsessive). First impressions, a big and well equipped ship, and my cabin is more spacious than I expected. Second impression there was still a great deal to do before our scheduled departure noon Tuesday 15th July, with an impressive set of additional equipment being loaded as I arrived; the British Geological Survey waited on replacement cranes to load the 6m vibro-corer. The NOC 12m length piston corer was also working its way on board. A freight container that housed the University of Leicester Multi-Sensor Core Logger was also being loaded. The science team added research consumables to allow the sampling of ~200 core profiles and then on Tuesday ourselves for familiarisation and preparations to depart. It perhaps was more of a surprise than it should have been when our eventually departure lunchtime on Friday came around, because mobilising this scale of operation is challenging, and we did have a few issues with the vibrocorer that the BGS team worked largely round the clock to fix including extra and replacement equipment from Edinburgh. The wider BGS team got to know the route from Southampton – Edinburgh well…..

After some final repairs and tests of the vibrocorer and we met our Friday departure time, and headed for a date with the English Channel and a test location identified to the south of the Isle of Wight. Casting off and the journey to the Solent was in calm seas and glorious sunshine, within 3-4 hours we reached the test area, and the BGS and JC106 Science teams readied themselves for the fray. Using the RRS James Cook’s dynamic positioning system the crew manoeuvred the ship into position in 30-40m of water. The BGS team, thoroughly checking the physical operation of the equipment, lowered, sampled and recovered a vibrocore. The equipment was functioning fine, we were ready for the Celtic Sea and the Science team had materials on which to practice our procedures e.g. core cutting, splitting and description.

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On finishing the test core location, the geophysical equipment was powered up, so that the watch teams could gain experience and practice the 24 hr geophysics monitoring duties. My first watch was 12 midnight through to 4am! Actually pretty good fun, not sure how quickly my body clock will adjust to a warmed up dinner for breakfast, breakfast for lunch and lunch for dinner, and for that matter sleeping 4pm til 11pm……

Saturday through to Sunday was spent in transit; the shelf edge of the Celtic Sea is quite a long way ~ 36 hours at ~10 knots. In the mid-morning our safety skills were put through the paces, with a muster drill, the alarms sound we secure warm clothing and life jackets and convene in the muster point, from which we are led to and board the two life boats. Very spacious, well kind of, the each can take ~50 people and we are a crew of around 50. You can imagine they would get very warm and pretty unpleasant if full of people for a long time.

On waking 11pm after not much sleep, still adjusting to the new life cycle… Taking over from the end of my day watch partner, Catriona, my watch was good fun acquiring the data for the next 5-6 hours involving scouting for core sites as we began our target geophysics transect on the shelf edge, with some success finding some promising targets in between problems with the Sub-Bottom Profiler. Riccardo and then Kasper followed, with ever present input from night coring lead Sara, night geophysics lead Fabio and Margot. On this watch we completed an acoustic velocity profile as a calibration for the multibeam survey systems, and worked the geophysics transect. Once complete we arrived at the destination for our shelf edge piston core. The piston coring team from NOC made quick work of the 459 meter, recovering ~ 4m (JC106-002PC). Fabio and the RRS James Cook computation team carried out a further calibration of the multibeam survey using the sea floor topography. The core awaits acclimatising to the MSCL container and whole core analysis of the physical properties with Elke.

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At noon, the baton passed to day watch (Katrien, Lou, James, Catriona, Daniel, Zoe) and the challenges of obtaining five vibrocores along the geophysics transect in search of that Holy Grail, a contact between subglacial diamicts and glaciomarine deposits in 280m of water. JC106-003VC, the first stop, was on the flank of the western side of Little Sole Bank near an earlier BGS vibrocore. The materials were very tough penetrating ~1.6m, with a much consolidated stony diamict at the base; admittedly a little/lot early to say it looks a lot like what we were hoping for, and there are four more sites to follow, but….

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