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’.

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

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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



All hands on deck!


After convening in Gatwick Airport early on Sunday morning, our enthusiastic team of scientists finally made the flight over the Atlantic, and landed in St John’s, Canada; the starting point of research cruise ‘ICY-LAB’ (Isotope CYcling in the LABrador Sea). Spirits were high as we were greeted by a chilly 7 °C breeze, but a much warmer welcome from passport control. Located on the easternmost point of Canada and the fringes of the western Atlantic, St John’s in Newfoundland will be the starting point of our expedition that has been in the works for over a year. Shortly after arriving, we made little work of scouting out the RRS Discovery, huddled amongst fishing vessels and cargo ships along the dockside. Since then, our time has been spent stocking the labs with fresh bottles and tubing, tying down hulking pieces of equipment in defiance of the raging waves, tinkering with remotely-operated submersibles and stocking up on copious amounts of sea-sickness medication. Wifi has even been secured, despite an originally unyielding server onboard, so count it as a major success that you’re able to read this blog!

We’ll be setting off tomorrow for our first pit stop- a seamount off of the Canadian coast called Orphan Knoll- to explore seafloor ecosystems of the area whilst taking water samples and measuring the behaviour of the water masses across the Labrador Sea. While measuring profiles of the water column over its entire depth is a primary task in most oceanographic expeditions of this sort, knowledge of the creatures that crawl along the deep remain a big mystery. By collecting an assortment of corals, sponges and invertebrates, we hope to gain information on the sorts of environments some of these poorly-known species thrive in, how they interact both with each other, and how they might be affected in a warming world. Understanding how vast swathes of glaciers crumble into the icy waters between Canada and Greenland from high latitudes, altering global-scale circulation trends and transferring nutrients to the ocean represents the overarching aim of ICY-LAB. Few seafloor sampling efforts in this dynamic region mean that uncovering the bustling biota represents a gold mine for new discoveries, and we believe the Discovery is more than capable in accommodating our efforts.

For such a wide-ranging mission, a mix of scientists with varied backgrounds are eager to learn about many aspects of the marine environment. While researchers from US, Canadian and UK universities will be working round the clock, there are many things to gain from the privilege of spending time on a world-class research vessel.

“Seeing the Greenlandic scenery once we reach the coast will be really exciting. Hopefully we won’t be hit by too many storms beforehand!”- Dr Stephanie Bates from the University of Bristol, equipment and data manager.

“The amazing food onboard is definitely great motivation to keep working! This cruise will be a great chance to learn about different aspects of the marine sciences I haven’t had much exposure to- particularly using the geophysical equipment we’ll be deploying to map the seafloor. It’s definitely an awesome opportunity to develop skills fast, as the five weeks will fly by!”- Dr Hong Chin Ng from Bristol, member of the chemical oceanography team.

And so, as the minutes tick down, the atmosphere on the boat is one of excitement as we’re all raring for to get going. Come along for the (hopefully not too bumpy) ride, as we’ll keep you updated with our findings!

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L-R: George Rowland (University of Bristol), Kate Hendry (Chief Scientist, UoB), Hong Chin Ng (UoB), Allison Jacobel (Columbia University) by the dockside in St John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.

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Hong Chin (UoB) and James Williams (Cardiff University) organising equipment in the chemistry lab.

Written by Adam Cooper, MSc student at the University of Southampton


29th May 2017

We’re getting closer to our scientific cruise! We’ll be flying out of the UK (and other countries!) in just over a month’s time, to St Johns in Canada, where we will meet the RRS Discovery and head off on cruise number DY081.

The Discovery, however, is about to start its own journey in just a few days, heading off from Southampton on another scientific project, before our rendez-vous in Canada. This means that we have to get as much packed and on to the ship as we possibly can!

We have been busy buying all the bits and pieces that you need at sea, from sample bottles and spectrophotometers, all the way through to mops and buckets.

Kate and Hong Chin buying a mop and a bucket for DY081!

Then it’s a matter of getting everything in boxes. How much stuff do we really need to take?!

Steph, and all the boxes!

Welcome to ICY-LAB!

Isotope CYcling in the LABrador Sea!

This page is under construction, but will be all about Project ICY-LAB!

The high-latitude regions are experiencing some of the most rapid changes observed in recent decades: polar temperatures are rising twice as fast as the global mean and there are concerns about the impact of sea-ice and glacier retreat on global oceans and climate. The high-latitude North Atlantic is also a key region for ecologically and economically important natural resources such as fisheries. How these resources will change in the future depends strongly on the response of marine biogeochemical cycling of essential nutrients to increasing anthropogenic stress.


Diatoms are photosynthetic algae that are responsible for nearly half of the export of carbon from the sea surface to the seafloor, and they are a sensitive indication of the state of nutrient cycling. Diatoms are one of many organisms that precipitate biogenic opal, an amorphous glass made of silica (hydrated SiO2), to form protective skeletons, and one of the essential nutrients is therefore dissolved silicon (Si) in the form of silicic acid. The response of the silicon cycle to changing environmental conditions is critical for both carbon and nutrient cycling and it can now be addressed through high precision silicon isotopes, which is the focus of ICY-LAB.


The approach will be to capture the whole silicon cycle system in areas of marked environmental change using careful field sampling strategies – with research expeditions to coastal Greenland and the open ocean Labrador Sea – coupled with cutting-edge analytical methods. The results will lead to an unprecedented and cross-disciplinary view of nutrient cycling, biomineralisation, and the taxonomy and biogeography of siliceous organisms in an ecologically important region of the North Atlantic.