Today I managed to catch our resident seafloor mapper aboard the ship, Shannon Hoy, coding extraordinaire and all-round lovely person for a quick-fire Q&A. Here she put up with my inane questions and shed some light on what she’s learning from generating maps of the ocean, from reef environments to the wider-scale abyssal geology under the waves of the Labrador Sea. Initially reading for a degree in Marine Biology, Shannon has been lucky enough to have worked on 10 expeditions at sea- spanning both Poles, as well as the international date line. She is currently working towards a Master’s degree in Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire- Centre for Coastal and Ocean Mapping.
How did you get involved in cruise ICY-LAB?
I first met Laura Robinson and Kate Hendry (Chief Scientist) in 2011 during a research cruise to the Drake Passage in the Southern Ocean, and since then have taken up any opportunity to go to sea with them again!
What’s your role on the ship, and what motivates you to work in this field?
I run acoustic sonar systems to find out the bathymetry and geological features of the seafloor, as well as to find out locations of open-ocean populations and to look at physical parameters of the water column. Currently we are trying to map the boundaries between water masses based on their physical characteristics, which is really exciting! The physical oceanographers on the Discovery find this sort of information useful, as it ties in with how water masses mix and flow in the sea. A large aspect of my job is to add a spatial context to data that other scientists are collecting- this is important to support accurate interpretations of oceanic processes, by the addition of visual elements.
How does it work?
Transducers that are dotted along the outside of the ship send pulses of sound down to the seafloor. These bursts of sound get reflected back, and are heard by hydrophones also located along the ship. By calculating how fast these sound pulses travel through water, we can see how long it takes them to reach the seafloor. By repeatedly firing down pulses of sound we can work out the depth of the seafloor changes along a given trail, and therefore build a picture of what the seafloor topography looks like. For this cruise, we’ve been using this technology to locate seamounts and other places where we might be able to find seafloor communities for sampling!
What does your typical day at sea look like?
After getting up, I correspond with the previous watch about what happened over the last 12 hours. Then I make sure the multitude of screens are ticking over nicely and aren’t throwing up warning messages, and generally make sure things run smoothly. When they don’t, like when the sonars cut out, it’s a case of quick thinking and troubleshooting for my part! Taking data and presenting it in a visually stimulating way takes up a large portion of my time, and this is all fuelled by copious amounts of coffee and biscuits.
What’s been the biggest learning curve of this experience?
Typically, I’m the only one making decisions about how to properly set up this equipment and where to sample, so learning the systems to a sufficient level and relying on my own expertise to keep everything going has been the most frightening and beneficial aspect.
What’s your favourite bit of the job?
There’s nothing quite like uncovering and exploring swaths of the seafloor that no one’s seen before, as well as everything that comes with being at sea! I’ve done 3 cruises with the Bristol team, so learning about fossil corals as windows into past oceanic conditions has been really cool. As my undergraduate degree was in marine biology, having the opportunity to play with squishy things again has been great.
What’s your favourite part of living on the Disco?
The views, the food and the people. And that it’s so loud that no-one can hear me snore!
What are you most glad you brought, and anything you wish you had?
I’m glad I brought my iPad and headphones to sate my desire for constant One Direction hits. I wish I brought slippers and a warm jacket!
Any advice for people who want to go down a similar route?
I think many people find ocean mapping via other avenues, so there’s no direct route to take. The ocean sciences incorporate a lot of disciplines, so for me dabbling in many fields has lead me to what I do today! Being at sea has been great for getting exposure to many aspects of scientific research and computer technology, so there’s a lot to learn and be enthused by.
Shannon trying to salvage multibeam data in 50 knot winds! Photo credit: Laura Robinson