ROV-ing through Orphan Knoll

Though the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) that sits on the deck of the Discovery weighs in at four tonnes, when ambling along the sea floor its neutral buoyancy means it’s as light as a feather. This is necessary given the stealth and precision that the ROV requires to sample the bizarre lifeforms that inhabit Orphan Knoll- a bathymetric high within the Labrador Sea, and a suspected area of high biological variability. Equipped with mechanical claws, slurp-tubes, buckets, bottles and corers to harvest specimens from depths of 3,500 metres in these parts, the ROV was sent on its maiden voyage of ICY-LAB on Saturday.

When you’re in midst of a vast ocean, the unbreakable continuity of the undulating steely-blue waters at the surface can trick you into thinking it’s a barren abyss that’s void of life. However, within the first 200 metres of the descent, while the ROV was still warming up its ‘arms’, the computer monitors back onboard lit up with chaotic clouds of phytoplankton darting in all directions. Dazed fish and rays meandered before the robot’s cameras, and the sky-blue colour of the water developed into a rich, full indigo as the kit sank lower and lower. The main laboratory was rapidly converted to a makeshift cinema as onlookers gathered to take in the spectacle.

While it has the capability to roam up to 6 kilometres, the ROV is tethered to the ship as a means of operating the copious gadgets loaded onto its frame. Such operations occur in a darkened room teeming with engineers to adjust the cameras, maintain the course and speed, and control the arms of the submersible. Though the atmosphere was tense during the seafloor landing several hours after deployment, relentless noughties pop hits that were blasted through the ‘ROV hut’ seemed to relax the navigators (and deter several scientists). In no time at all, we were bobbing along coral gardens, slurping up sponges, and scaling the steep inclines of Orphan Knoll on the lookout for as many diverse species as could be crammed into the ROV’s containers.

It was difficult to bid farewell to the seafloor, even after our successful 24-hour voyage. After the ROV surfaced, it was a scramble to collect and preserve the biological samples as soon as possible for an assortment of experiments, with buckets of seawater primed for the ferrying of samples to and from the lab.

‘By collecting and analysing sponges and corals at a range of depths as we move up this bathymetric high, we can glean how important seafloor communities process nutrients from the waters they bathe in. The ROV offers a unique window into these environments, as most of these features have never been physically seen before’ says Kate Hendry, Chief Scientist. ‘By understanding the conditions that these creatures thrive in, we may have a better understanding of how they may react to climatic forcing in the future’.

Genetic biologist Michelle Taylor, Oxford University, is enthusiastic about collecting species to improve our understanding of habitat diversity. ‘We can identify how closely-related benthic species are by looking at their genetic code, and therefore understand how specific populations are connected across the region’, Michelle says. ‘This will ultimately facilitate governmental decisions regarding how regions of the ocean floor should be protected and managed’.

ICY lab image 3

Final checks being carried out on the ROV before deployment. Photo credit: Shannon Hoy

ICY lab image 4

The ICY-LAB team taking in their first view of the seafloor around Orphan Knoll in the ROV hut. Photo credit: Shannon Hoy

Written by Adam Cooper



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