Cruising Doggerland

By Dave Roberts (with selected photography by Alex Ingle)

Doggerland

Doggerland

The last week has seen the start of the epic trek north to south from Shetland to the Dogger Bank in the southern North Sea.

We spent the first 2 days looking at some enigmatic grounding wedge features on the sea-floor just west of the Norwegian channel where the British and Norwegian Ice sheets battled it out for supremacy during the last cycle. We also stepped boldly into the unexplored world of outburst floods and drowned coastlines with a some incredible seafloor geomorphology adding to the ice sheet story in relation to the uncoupling of the two ice sheets. Unbelievable geomorph!

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From the Norwegian Channel we headed SW towards the Moray Forth running a 100mile survey and coring transect NW to SE over a spectacular series of moraines before heading into the central North Sea and the urban heartland of the North Sea oil fields around Shearwater and Erskine. Our goal was the Great Fisher Bank (that renowned last bastion of the British Ice Sheet) where we enjoyed a cracking day out sampling Holocene sand and the arrival of a racing pigeon called Terry from Thurso. Needless to say, Terry proved more interesting than the seafloor that day!

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The great odyssey to the Far East was followed by 3 epic days surveying and coring east of the Firth of Forth and then down the east coast from Berwick to Sunderland chasing the imprint of the North Sea lobe. Moraines, deltas, eskers, outwash fans and tunnel valleys littered the bed of the Forth system; all soaked in metres glorious glacial sediment. Better was to follow as we moved south along the Northumbrian coast with the resplendent Whin Sill fracturing the seafloor and grounding zone wedges plastered on to the bedrock. There were also superb, quiet seafloor basins revealing the multi-coloured, muddy barcodes of the deglacial story of the Forth, Tweed and Tyne Ice Streams.

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The final push now. One week to go and on to Dogger Bank for the next two days. Can we prise out the some glacial secrets from beneath that sandy veneer? Huge sand banks seem to guard its peripheral moat warning against trespass, but we are committed now and on to its shallow, upper surface. Our early cores are showing promise; we will see. Hopefully, our target sites in the Humber and Wash area will bring a pot of glacial gold at the end of a cracking month at sea. Then home.

North, beyond Shetland: A Daysleeper’s diary

by Tom Bradwell (Day 15: Friday, 04:44) (with some photography by Alex Ingle)

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The last time we ventured into Shetland territory it was in pursuit of far-travelled rocks laid down by the last ice sheet, strewn across hard-to-reach islands – Foula, Papa Stour, Out Skerries, to name just three. Our successful 10 island-tour of Shetland took place in 11 carefully planned days in May last year, when the 6-strong team worked from dawn til dusk to ensure that they didn’t return home empty handed. Those precious rock specimens have since been analysed at Glasgow University; their exposure age is helping to unravel the ice sheet history of Shetland and the surrounding area. This time the Britice-Chrono team are on the high seas, aboard the RRS James Cook, looking for glacial seabed mud and ice sheet imprints along the extreme edge of NW Europe, from the Outer Hebrides to the Norwegian Channel.

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In this part of the UK, in July (at 61.5 degrees N and still within the offshore Exclusive Economic Zone) dusk stretches beyond midnight and the sun reappears before 3 am, after only the briefest of nights. That being said, working on the night shift is still a challenge. The geophysical data collection and seabed coring programme on the James Cook works 24/7. The ship’s crew operate on 4-hr ‘watches’, and the science team are divided into day and night shifts (8am to 8pm) to allow around-the-clock working. Punctual, brief, morning and evening meetings allow seamless handover between shifts, an update on the day’s progress, and an all-important weather forecast for the next 48 hrs. Day and night shifts for the science team are similar in content but different in the details. Apart from the darkness, the cold, the nocturnal fatigue and the daysleeping, we have dinner for breakfast and sometimes breakfast for dinner; which mixes up the body’s normal everyday cycle and turns the daily routine on its head. But after 2 weeks on the night shift, having a roast beef lunch at midnight seems almost normal. Although going to bed when the sun is at its warmest will never feel quite right to me. And the AM vs PM confusion is always there, nagging away.

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As we collect geophysical data, recover seabed samples and describe cores well into the night, the daysleepers perform the same rituals as the nightsleepers but just in a different time zone. We say ‘good morning’ to people instead of ‘goodnight’; we cheerfully get down to work on Wednesday night and carry on into Thursday morning; we relax on deck after some ‘early evening’ exercise; and drink a beer instead of pouring that first cup of coffee. But perhaps my favourite bit is not really ever knowing what day of the week it is. Waking up after a full ‘night’s’ sleep to find it’s still the same day as when you went to bed. Confusing, but curiously liberating!

Anyway, back to the science. Yesterday’s leg of the cruise took us 60 nautical miles (or roughly 111.11 kilometres) north of Muckle Flugga lighthouse, Shetland’s northern tip – a point on the Greenwich meridian still in UK waters but on the same latitude as Narsarsuaq Glaciers in east Greenland and Suduroy in the Faroe Islands. We took 9 seabed cores during a 12 hour transit back towards Shetland, each one penetrating different sediment, and each one hopefully holding its own clues as to when the last ice sheet retreated and when sea levels rose. The spectacular sequence of moraine ridges on the seabed NE of Shetland is unique within the British Isles, both in its unusual shape and the number of landforms preserved. Although we’ve known about the moraine pattern for a while, and what it means for the last ice sheet to cover Shetland and the northern North Sea, the age of these features remains elusive. What we find when we analyse these cores will hopefully help clear things up.

For me, the crucial part of the Britice-Chrono project comes when linking geological evidence onshore and offshore — something that has often proved difficult in the past. As an Earth scientist, interested in glacial processes, the distinction between terrestrial and marine is a blurred and relatively unimportant one. A bit like the difference between morning and evening when working the night shift at this latitude…

A Photographer’s Perspective…

 A series of guest blogs by Alex Ingle, resident filmmaker and photographer.


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A new perspective on things.

Now that we’re done with introductions (blog here), and as we’re just about at the halfway point of the cruise, I thought I’d share some insight into life on board the ship from a photographer’s perspective; what it’s like being the ‘odd one out’ and some of the unique challenges that this environment presents me with.

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Docked in Southampton, getting some final shots on the evening before we left.

Life on board a research ship is a 24/7 operation, there’s always something happening, people are always working, and there’s always a photograph opportunity or two. This is the first challenge for me, whereas the science teams and crew have set shift patterns that rotate every 12 hours, I’m in charge of my own schedule and must decide when and where to photograph. I could choose to only shoot on blue-sky days for a few hours and spend the rest of my time with my feet up, but this wouldn’t be a true representation of ship life (and, honestly, it wouldn’t be much fun). In order to portray a more realistic picture, and to document the ups and downs which come with this line of work, it’s my job to experience both day and night shifts, across the whole ship come rain or shine.

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This far north, when the sun rises early; the photographer stays up late.

Sometimes I’ll be out on deck at night – sitting with the crew as they exchange stories during horizontal rain, watching the science teams jump into action as fresh cores are hauled up from the sea floor in the early hours. At other times I follow the day shifts – the chefs and porters in the galley, the engineers beneath deck or the science teams processing cores in the labs. Some days I do a bit of both. It’s an intense environment, especially when the weather takes a turn for the worse, and making sure that I’m always in the right place at the right time to get the shot is a constant challenge, as is making sure I get enough sleep in between it all!

Vibrocorer repairs on the aft deck.

Vibrocorer repairs on the aft deck.

 

However, by far the biggest challenge for me revolves around safety. Shooting an assignment in a complex and dangerous offshore environment requires much more consideration than most of my work on dry land. Traversing glaciers, or navigating gorges whilst following scientists isn’t without its dangers, but here on the ship you really have to stay on the ball at all times. This is particularly challenging as a photographer/filmmaker coming into an environment like this for the first time. Now I have the benefit of last year’s offshore experience, but when you first step on board it’s not difficult to get caught up in a shot without realising that you’re in danger of falling overboard or getting caught in a winch cable. With ‘viewfinder vision’ it’s all too easy to forget what’s happening around you while you’re focussed on getting the shot.

The aft deck.

The aft deck.

You find photo opportunities wherever you look, but you have to have eyes on the back of your head, and be completely aware of everyone and everything around you. This is especially the case beneath deck in the engine rooms. Down there you wear noise-cancelling earmuffs, it’s deafening without them. Losing one of your senses makes a dangerous place even more so, particularly when navigating through watertight doors and past moving machinery. But, if you keep your wits about you, listen to the advice of the crew, drink plenty of coffee and make sure that when one eye is behind the viewfinder, the other is always focussed outside the frame, then it’s a thrilling place to work.

Another challenge that springs to mind involves capturing 24/7 coring operations on film. Being immersed in this environment, it’s easy to get a sense of scale first hand, but it’s quite a logistical and technical challenge to capture that on film for others to see. The fairly straightforward task of shooting time-lapse sequences suddenly requires a lot more thought when you’re on a ship. In addition to the usual technical considerations, you need to consider how high the swell might get, strapping everything down with cable ties and ballast and making sure it’s protected from the elements. I don’t attempt these long time lapses very often out here largely because of the impact it has on my sleep – I tend to lie in bed imagining my gear out on deck sliding overboard, and end up checking on it every hour throughout the night. I haven’t (yet!) encountered any major issues but since I shot a few successful 24-hour time-lapse sequences of ‘vibrocoring’ on JC106 last year… I don’t think there’s any need to tempt fate (or disturb my sleep) this time around!

On a side note, being the one behind the camera means there’s not a lot of photos featuring me – the exception being the slightly unflattering ‘checking to see if the GoPro is running during a time lapse’ shot:

 

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Connect with Alex on social media:

Instagram: @alexinglephoto
Twitter: @alexinglephoto
Facebook: http://facebook.com/alexinglephoto

A Perfect Core……..

By Margot Saher, Dave Roberts and Rich Chiverrell (Photography by Alex Ingle)

Darkness. A great mass of ice overhead. The eerie rumbling of a large, uncompromising mass, slowly but steadily on the move. Below a thick layer of stiff red sediment, ground off the red bedrock, crushed and churned into a lumpy, sticky blanket of glacial till.

Dark coasts

Dark coasts

What would later be called Cape Wrath was only miles to the south, but there was no cape yet. Just the grinding of slow and unforgiving ice moving north into the North Atlantic. But the times were changing. The sun gained in strength, atmosphere and ocean started to warm and the gigantic ice mass, later to be known as the British-Irish Ice Sheet, was in decline. As its surface melted, more water reached its bed, and it began to slide helplessly over its own sediments. Slowly it thinned, and retreated in the direction of the Scottish mountains with the ocean lapping relentlessly at its edges.

There seemed to be no hope, but the ice sheet made one last bold dash towards the edge of the continental shelf before it faltered. The recently deglaciated seabed and freshly deposited grey ocean sediments were bulldozed and overrun again by ice on the move, and buried once more in a blanket of red till. Linear ridges (moraines) marked the limit of this temporary re-advance. But it was only a death throw; the re-advance didn’t get far. The ice sheet’s days were numbered. The advance stopped, and turned into irreversible retreat.

A geophysical search for the perfect core.......

A geophysical search for the perfect core…….

Against a backdrop of rumbling, calving icebergs, station JC123-048VC slowly became ice free, as the snout of the ice sheet moved back over the site. A cold, shallow sea took its place; first, still close to the snout of the ice sheet, where streams of meltwater rushing into the waiting sea water lay down a blanket of coarse sand. As the ice retreated further, taking the meltwater streams with it, the sea fell silent. Only fine sediments spat out into suspension by the dying ice sheet made it to our site, slowly covering it in a thick, grey blanket.

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The ice sheet sent a final message as the ice margins retreated south towards the land; a message from an iceberg. As it passed, melting, overhead of station JC123-048VC, pebbles slipped from its icy grip. They plummeted into the depths, impacting into the soft fine clay sea bed. As soon as this excitement started it was over, and the pebbles were slowly covered by more of the same grey clay.

With the great weight of the ice gone, the Earth’s crust rose like an ancient giant from its slumbers, pushing the Scottish continental shelf closer to the sea surface. Over time, the waters shallowed, and the seabed currents became stronger. The last vestiges of the glacial seafloor were scoured by contour currents, which deposited the spoils of an energetic coast on the eroded sediment below. Millennia later coarse sand and shell debris formed a layer of several inches thick. And then on Sunday the 12th July 2015 all changed.

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There was an unfamiliar thud, and then the uncanny sensation of a vibrating tube burrowing into the sediment from above. It cut through the sand in a jiffy, passed the pebbles, and into the soft clays. The tube slid through it like a hot knife through butter. No struggle with the coarse sands lain down by meltwater streams either, only slowing on reaching the stiff, red till. It battled its way into it for a meter and a half. Then the friction became too much. The vibrocorer stopped, and then the whole tube, now full of sediment, was pulled back up to the sea surface, and hoisted back up onto the deck of the RRS James Cook, the ship it had come from. Peace returned once again on to the sea floor, at core site VC123-048VC, a few miles north of Cape Wrath, on the northwestern edge of Scotland; a land mass now devoid of ice sheets and glaciers.

The core came on board and was cut into sections, labelled, scanned, and split. Finally, we, the scientists who had planned the project, planned the cruise, sailed all the way from Southampton to Cape Wrath, and waited for the British Geological Survey (BGS) to deliver the core, first laid eyes on the sediment. The story was there: a stiff basal till deposited beneath the ice sheet; fines marking the first incursion of the sea; further glacial till documenting the ice re-advance, meltwater stream sediments deposited in front of the retreating ice margin; the fine clays deposited when the ice began to recede southwards containing drop-stones from the icebergs, and the marine sand of the modern seafloor. That was what we had come for. And this was the 48th core; none of the previous 47 had told the story of the vanishing British ice quite this clearly.

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Hopefully we’ll be getting more cores like this in the coming three weeks of the cruise. We need this story told in every sector of the British-Irish continental shelf. Only then will we have what we set out for: the complete saga of the Last British-Irish Ice Sheet.

Gripped in the jaws of the Minch

By Richard Chiverrell and Tom Bradwell (photography by Alex Ingle)

1292 km, 51 cores, 177m of sediment, not a bad haul

1292 km, 51 cores, 177m of sediment, not a bad haul


We, the science crew of RRS James Cook Cruise JC123, sailed from Southampton Friday 3rd July bound for the last three transects of the NERC funded Consortium Britice-Chrono, our aim is to work out the timing of the last deglaciation of Britain and Ireland. After a quick stop outside the Solent to test the BGS vibrocore we made hast (10 knots) northwards through the North Sea running geophysical surveys for the North Sea sector (Transect 2) as we went, and in the early hours of Monday 6th July we rounded the northern tip of Scotland on schedule for our speedy (19 knots) tide-assisted passage through Pentland Firth between Orkney and the Scottish Mainland onwards to Transect 8 and the delights of the Minch palaeo-Ice Stream extending north from Skye between the Scottish Mainland and the outer Hebrides towards the edge of the continental shelf and the North Atlantic.

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The Minch seaway ~28-25,000 years ago received ice flow from the major fjords in NW Scotland feeding palaeo-ice stream, which extended north and northwest across the continental shelf. This ice stream dominated the northwestern sector of the British Ice Sheet (BIS). The land- and sea-scape probably developed over multiple glacial episodes, but the sea floor landforms and uppermost geology reflect the most recent deglaciation after 25,000 years ago. The aim of Britice-Chrono is to work out the timescale for this deglaciation, and this has involved fieldwork on land, dating outwash deposits on the Isles of Lewis, Skye and on mainland, and glacially eroded bedrock and boulders across the region. The offshore phase of this research has occupied us, so far, for the last seven days and nights, and involved surveying the sea floor for the morphology and the sediments using acoustic sounding techniques, but critically sampling the sea floor sediments. We have two coring systems on board, a percussive vibrating corer that can sample down to 6 m below the sea bed penetrating the tough materials laid down beneath and in front of former glaciers, and a gravity powered piston corer capable of sampling up to 18m in softer sediments. Our aim is to find shells in these glacial sediments to radiocarbon date and work out the timing of deglaciation.

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The success of the efforts for both our cruises relies on the excellent 24 hour work ethic, diligence and company of the cruise team, science crew, BGS and NOC Piston coring teams and the RRS James Cook captain and crew, all of whom do everything they can to help us. The middle 2-3 days of T8 were particularly nerve-wracking as the BGS crew toiled night and day to fix a particularly truculent problem with the vibrocorer, part of the solution to which lay in finding and removing an electrical break in the 1500 metres of cable that winches the BGS vibrocore to and from the sea bed. Thankfully time was spent obtaining important piston cores in the inner Minch and collecting valuable geophysical data, as the BGS team worked around the clock. As ever in Britice chrono’s experience, the BGS team, had everything needed on board to solve the problem, and cheers greeted the announcement of ready to go, and there followed ‘an in at the deep end’ test of the repair in 500-600 metres of water off the continental shelf fronting the Minch ice stream. Success, with 4.14 metres of glacimarine muds recovered, and on leaving the waters of T8 a further 11 vibrocores were recovered containing the key shell-rich glacimarine and subglacial muds our project requires.
Calm seas, epic sunsets

Calm seas, epic sunsets


Looking back on the Minch experience, it is certainly one of the prettiest (former) ice streams we have worked on during the Britice-Chrono cruises, with land in view and visiting the Inner Hebrides passing the Isles of Skye, Lewis/Harris and Raasay amongst others. The leg has been a considerable success, we have collected 1292.6 km of geophysical data (multi-beam and sub bottom profiler), 51 sediment cores (39 vibrocores, 12 piston cores) and 177.2m in vertical sediment profile; who said the Minch was a small ice stream? Our travels have taken us from Raasay Sound in the south over the edge of the continental shelf at 59° 15’ N, and into near shore waters fronting Cape Wrath and the Summer Isles. The answers to the Britice-Chrono geochronological questions must wait on many months of laboratory analysis, but we leave the Minch with all teething troubles behind us, and a growing bounty of cores in the locker. We are ready for the delights of Shetland…!
A 12m piston core (Tom Bradwell for scale ~ 1.74m)

A 12m piston core (Tom Bradwell for scale ~ 1.74m)

Here we go…

Here we go, here we go, here we go, HERE …WEE …GOoooo…..

The RRS James Cook, towards the end of mobilisation. Just the ‘Vibrocorer’ is left standing proud on the dock – ready to be lifted into position.

The Royal Research Ship (RRS) James Cook gets ready for her geophysics and coring cruise as part of BRITICE-CHRONO’s investigations into the speed of ice sheet retreat. Just back from Mexican waters she needs to prepare for the North Sea and the continental shelf and fjords of northern Scotland. Our resident filmmaker for the cruise, Alex Ingle, has captured the mobilisation process. Witness much dockside crane-work at the National Oceanographic Centre in Southampton, loading the drilling rigs (vibro- and piston corers) and containers of kit including our impressively-refurbished containerised core scanning laboratory, which comes complete with scientist Sally Morgan. So much deck manipulation was required that a small ‘cherry picker’ was craned onboard for the delicate manoeuvring. Food and water for a one month journey also made it onboard, although I noted at breakfast this morning that we are drinking bottled water from Mexico, very nice too.

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Mobilisation of the science team was much easier, with 25 of us travelling by train, plane, and automobile and climbing the steep gangway. This brings the ship’s complement to 52, all of whom are ready for a voyage of some discovery. Colm is our captain of science for the trip (Principal Scientific Officer) and is hoping for a nice and steady start to our adventure. For me, the long-awaited cruise started on my birthday, very fitting timing and more so because it was also on my birthday, high in the Italian Alps, that I first learnt that our BRITICE-CHRONO project got the go-ahead when NERC chose to fund it. Clearly a precedent has now been set for sizeable scientific treats on my birthday that I hope to enjoy in the future years. I am just back from a marvellous lunch, with stop-press news, we have now run out of Mexican water, our new supplies are from Conwy in North Wales.

The science team watch as the Vibrocorer is lowered into the water for a test core.

The science team watch on in anticipation as the Vibrocorer is lowered into the water for the first time this cruise.

So we finally set sail 9am Friday 3rd July, setting off on a 3 day transit up the east coast of England and Scotland, through the hazardous Pentland Firth, westwards across Scotland’s north coast to our first target cores near Cape Wrath. Let there be shells of treasure in them there cores……..

Chris Clark.

A Photographer’s Introduction

A series of guest blogs by Alex Ingle, resident filmmaker and photographer.


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To begin with, I guess an introduction is in order. My name’s Alex Ingle, a filmmaker/photographer from Stirling, Scotland, specialising in multimedia outreach for scientific research and field expeditions. I joined the Britice-Chrono team in 2014 to document their first research cruise, and, after a very successful trip all round, I am delighted to be back on board. On that note, a sincere ‘thank you’ is in order to everyone for inviting me back!

On the James Cook I’m in a pretty unique position to be able to experience and document all aspects of ship life, floating between day shifts and night shifts on all parts of the vessel as the crew and science teams work around the clock. From the chefs in the galley to the engineers beneath deck, people from all walks of life work together to make research projects like this happen, and I’d be delighted to offer some insight into this intriguing world through this series of blogs. Working in this environment presents some pretty unique challenges for me as well, which I’d also like to share with you over the coming weeks.

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Now that I’m settled in – my camera gear is unpacked, the BGS equipment is nearly mobilized and ready to go, and we’re waiting for the science team to arrive – I think I’ll take this opportunity to paint a brief picture of my work, and explain how on earth I ended up working on research ships…!

Let’s start way back. I grew up in rural Scotland, and have lived there for much of my life since. I’ve never had any formal photography training, but when I think back, my love of photography (which later transitioned into filmmaking) began when I was five. I was given my first disposable film camera on holiday in France, and, after finding some catfish in a pond, used an entire roll of film within a few short minutes. That’s where it all started, when a love of wildlife overlapped with a newfound hobby. As a kid, I dreamt of becoming a nature photographer. I always had my head buried in my collection of National Geographics and ‘Wildlife Fact Files’ and watched all of the old BBC natural history documentaries religiously. I spent my spare time outdoors with my Dad’s Olympus OM1 as well as countless Polaroids and disposable cameras, stalking family pets and wild birds as I learned the art of photography through trial and error.

Despite those early aspirations, it’s only in the last few years that photography/filmmaking has become more than just a hobby. In brief, over the course of several years, I travelled to Iceland and Greenland to research glaciers, ice caps and the impact of climate change. This was to be a turning point in both my personal life and career, but not as I could ever have expected. In Iceland I met a girl who later became my wife (it’s a long story involving glaciers, kæstur hákarl [rotten shark] and a chance encounter on the country’s southern coast) and in Greenland I met a photographer and filmmaker called Chris Linder. At that point, whilst camped in a remote corner of Greenland, I finally decided to take the plunge and turn filmmaking and photography into a career…. and I haven’t looked back since.

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Combining my passion for science with a love of filmmaking and photography, I began working with researchers across the UK to produce multimedia and to run outreach campaigns that would engage with the public by showing the ‘human face’ of science. This unusual career path has taken me to some remarkable places, but, until 2014, these were exclusively on dry land. Early last year, after a discussion with Chris Clark, Britice-Chrono’s Principal Investigator, I received my first offshore assignment – to document the life and work of those onboard the James Cook (JC106).

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I’ve got to admit, it was a daunting task having only ever been on rather tame ferry crossings before but it turned out to be an awesome experience which has led my work down a really exciting path. Over the coming month, as well as shooting some documentary footage for Britice-Chrono, I’ll be spending time on board developing some of my own work during the first of three offshore artist’s residencies. Last time, I found my sea legs pretty quickly and avoided any sea sickness… here’s hoping for the same this time around!

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Connect with Alex on social media:

Instagram: @alexinglephoto
Twitter: @alexinglephoto
Facebook: http://facebook.com/alexinglephoto