New from Old, Maybe

by Timothy Culwick

A new method of identifying old sponge specimens using DNA mini-barcoding.

Sponges are some of the most diverse and varied of the aquatic invertebrates with about 7,000 species described so far (Hooper 2002). Their success and morphological variability results in major problems with specimen identification. Due to similarities in hand specimen features a microscope is often needed to apply the appropriate Order let alone species separation. This difficulty is compounded in deep marine environments where much of the data come from camera drop images or broken fragments from trawling.

In Marine Biodiversity, Cardenas and Moore (2017) describe a new Geodia location on New England sea mounts and test a new way of specimen identification using mini-barcodes.

Geodia from the ICY-LAB cruise, image taken from the Remotely Operated Vehicle

In the North Atlantic there are large sponge grounds on the slopes and shelves with most of the biomass stemming from the Geodiidea and Ancorinidae families. The grounds are both potentially ecological and environmentally important due to their size and extent. Geodiidea form the largest of the sponges in these grounds with single sponges getting up to 1m in diameter. Whilst comparatively easy to identify from large undamaged specimens due to its external morphology, broken or small specimens are much harder to separate. The damaged and diminutive species currently rely on spicule morphology which is difficult for non-specialise.

Molecular phylogeny of the Geodia genus, from Cárdenas et al. (2013: figure 2). Maximum-likelihood tree made from concatenated sequences of COI (Folmer fragment) and 28S (C1-D2 domains). Bootstrap nodal support values are given above the nodes: *, ≥ 75%; +, ≥99% (2000 replicates).

DNA Barcodes for Geodia species in the North Atlantic have been studied before (Cardenas 2013). They looked at the Folmer cytochrome oxidase subunit I (COI), 28S and 18S. of which both 28S and COI were unique for each species. Although due to slow evolution, identification of close species is limited (Schuster 2017). 18S was reported to be unique for four species but identical for two others. 18S has been previously noted to be conservative and therefore not useful for barcoding. However, this study relies on material to have no degradation of the DNA. Here we run into a problem with whole barcode sequencing. There is a limited number of specimens due to the challenge of collection at the depth and many were collected before DNA sequencing was possible. This is particularly true for most holotypes. These specimens were, and most still are, preserved using methods that degrade DNA making this type of analysis impossible.

The new specimens described by Carden and Moore (2017) were fixed in formalin which breaks down DNA so were unable to obtain a full-length barcode. They tried extracting two mini-barcodes the universal mini-barcode (=first 130bp of the Folmer barcode) and the Depressio-mini-barcode (= last 296bp of the Folmer barcode). Both barcodes hold the advantage of using an established barcoding database, so time and effort is not required to create one. The universal mini-barcode was obtained for five out of eight specimens. As with the full barcode it could not distinguish close species but importantly they all unambiguously identified the Geodia genus. This level of identification although superficially arbitrary for an organism within this phylum this is very helpful. The Depressio-mini-barcode was as sensitive as the full-length barcode with these specimens. However, it has not been used as a tool for identification on other sponges so should be treated cautiously. The potential sensitively suggested from this study is very striking and would be of great interest to look at further.
The most interesting part of this paper is what they went on to do next: they tried this mini-barcoding approach on two old specimens which would usually be considered unusable for DNA analysis. The first was a 11-14yr formalin fixed specimen from which they retrieved 100-300bp sequences. The second was a 161yr old dry holotype where two mini-barcodes were obtained. These hints of a method to open up the large proportion of collections to potential analysis which would otherwise be unusable. However, only two old specimens were tested and only one of the mini-barcodes can be considered reliable at this time. I don’t think the authors when far enough with this avenue of the paper to extrapolate the value of this technique as far as they have. There is great potential to increase the reliability of the sponge barcoding data and to look at many phylogenetic and taxonomic questions (Erpenbeck 2016). It would have been interesting to have tried with multiple samples to give an idea of the reliability and frequency of which results can be obtained. This is an interesting new avenue of DNA sequencing and could yield valuable results, but it needs further work to become the staple tool that is suggested.

Hexactinellids from the ICY-LAB cruise


Cardenas, P., & Moore, J, (2017), First records of Geodia demosponges from the New England seamounts, an opportunity to test the use of DNA mini-barcodes on museum specimens: Marine Biodiversity, pp 1–12.

Cardenas, P., H. T. Rapp, A. B. Klitgaard, M. Best, M. Thollesson, and O. S. Tendal, (2013), Taxonomy, biogeography and DNA barcodes of Geodia species (Porifera, Demospongiae, Tetractinellida) in the Atlantic boreo-arctic region: Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, v. 169, p. 251-311.

Erpenbeck, D., M. Ekins, N. Enghuber, J. N. A. Hooper, H. Lehnert, A. Poliseno, A. Schuster, E. Setiawan, N. J. De Voogd, G. Woerheide, and R. W. M. Van Soest, (2016), Nothing in (sponge) biology makes sense – except when based on holotypes: Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, v. 96, p. 305-311.

Hooper, J., & van Soest, R., (2002), Systema Porifera: A Guide to the Classification of Sponges.

Schuster, A., J. V. Lopez, L. E. Becking, M. Kelly, S. A. Pomponi, G. Woerheide, D. Erpenbeck, and P. Cardenas, (2017), Evolution of group I introns in Porifera: new evidence for intron mobility and implications for DNA barcoding: Bmc Evolutionary Biology, v. 17.


Wrapping up!

And so, we’re nearly there!  We’ve sailed across the Atlantic, from our final station on the southern tip of Greenland all the way back home. We’re currently sailing through Irish Waters, due to pass by the Lizard sometime in the early hours of tomorrow.


We’ve had an incredibly busy, and successful, expedition (and I think that we’re all in need of some rest!).


We have collected or filtered approximately 28,000 litres of seawater; over 50 metres of marine sediments; and 1551 biological specimens (across 10 Phyla). The ROV dived for over 186 hours (over a week!) and we surveyed an area over twice the size of Wales…


During that time, we ate 1000 kg of carrots, 400 kg of potatoes, 280 l of fruit juice, 52 kg of baked beans, and went through 2000 tea bags. We also ate one whole bag of frozen broad beans.


But aside from all the science we meticulously planned, what are some of the concluding thoughts of the scientists onboard?


Highlights of ICY-LAB


George: Preserving handfuls of deep-sea life in jars of ethanol..


Shannon: Conducting CTD collections and delegating responsibility- I liked being the boss! I loved the dynamic of the Night Shift!


Veerle: The giant rays and the squid attack we saw on the ROV footage was really cool to see!


Adam: The friendships forged during the coldest water sampling stints on the deck through the night. As well as the beautiful sunrises!


Ana: Something I won’t ever forget is the moment we saw the seafloor at 3000 metres for the first time- it wasn’t like anything I’ve seen before.


Claire: Searching the seafloor for samples was great, and finding carnivorous sponges was a definite highlight for me.


Grace: Conversations with Dave Edge, and dancing in the deck lab with Allison whilst slicing sediment cores!


Hong Chin: The integration of the whole science team was great!


James: A particular morning off the coast of Nuuk when a beautiful sunrise emerged and the whales came out.


Jake: Seeing freshly-made maps of the seafloor, and meeting strong currents off southwest Greenland which made for very interesting sailing! Also, escaping from the cold biology room each time!


Michelle: Seeing awesome deep-sea animals, and being in the ROV van!


Rebecca: I never thought I’d de-goo a bamboo coral.


Amber: Filtering 6000 litres of seawater!


Marcus: Seeing the sun rise over Greenland with new and old friends.


Steph: That moment in Nuuk when the sun rose and the whales came out was unforgettable.


Laura: Dougal requesting Thai Fish Curry for dinner constantly.


Kate: It was great how the whole science team gelled so well together, and made the whole experience awesome!


Allison: The very first gravity core that came up with more than 5 metres of sediment was great.


I’m glad I brought:


George: A multi-tool.


Grace: Tea and chocolate!


Kate: My slippers.


Shannon: Hard drive space.


Laura: A coffee machine and down jacket!


Rebecca: Warm fuzzy hoodies.


Adam: A journal and sketchpad.


Ana: Earplugs.


Michelle: A thermal onesie.


Veerle: My cruise notes from previous cruises.


James: Headphones and chocolate.


Allison: Music speakers.


Jake: A tweed jacket.


Marcus: A boiler suit, my DSLR camera, and high-fit waterproof trousers.


Claire: My boiler suit for the cold room.


Hong Chin: Hair ties.


Steph: Thick socks.


Amber: A bath mat, and the game Jungle Speed!


Things I wish I brought:


Ana: A boiler suit.


Shannon: More shoe options.


Veerle: My music collection.


George: More ‘normal’ clothes.


Adam: Chocolate and tea.


Rebecca: Snacks.


Grace: A jet ski!


Kate: My cat.


Laura: A cosy jumper.


James: Shoes and boiler suit.


Michelle: Music speakers.


Allison: A ‘big-ass’ telephoto lens.


Jake: Earl Grey tea.


Marcus: Another 2 terabytes of data space, and a lapel microphone.


Hong Chin: A far-range camera lens.


Steph: Binoculars.


Amber: A more extensive playlist for the chemistry lab!


Things I didn’t end up using:


Kate: Seasickness tablets.


George: A load of books there wasn’t time to read!


Ana: I was too tired to keep a journal, so I didn’t need that!


Shannon: My waterproof trousers.


Adam: Seasickness tablets.


Allison: My sunhat!


Veerle: My swimsuit.


Laura: Swimming gear.


Rebecca: Surprisingly, I never wore my warmest winter jacket.


Michelle: Two pairs of sunglasses were unnecessary.


James: Shorts.


Jake: Swimming shorts, flip-flops.


Marcus: Waterproof coat, flip-flops.


Hong Chin: A thermos flask.


Steph: My camera.. I can rely on everyone else’s lovely photos!




Thanks to all the scientists, technicians, and all the crew of the RRS Discovery for a great scientific adventure!


And thank you for reading our cruise blogs – please do keep reading to find out about all our updates.


The ICY-LAB Team

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The ICY-LAB science crew on the front deck of RRS Discovery! (Photo credit: Martin Bridger)













The day I learned how to de-goo a Bamboo Coral

Hello Everyone!


My name is Rebecca and I am a 3rd year PhD student from the Dauphin Island Sea Laboratory and the University of South Alabama in the USA. I call myself an aqueous geochemist by training, and I mean this is the truest way possible. I was invited on this cruise to work with radioactive silica and help with all things water chemistry- or so I thought…


I have spent the last 9 years of my educational career with my head in the sediments and water column, and avoided at all costs all things gooey, slimy, sticky or smelly. Yes, I work with algae, diatoms and sediments, but deep-sea biology is a world that I am completely lost and uncomfortable in. I have been on multiple research cruises, but they mostly focus on CTD cast after CTD cast, with samples coming from the water column and the sediments we collect along the way. But an ROV?! This is a whole new world full of spikey, spongey, living things that unfortunately must be cleaned, sorted and labeled when they arrive back on deck. As we hadn’t collected any new water samples for me to occupy my time with, I decided to help the biology team with its newest arrivals (this involved wearing as many layers as I could possibly manage, so I didn’t freeze in the cold room). I showed up to my new position and our fearless leader, Michelle, asked “How do you feel about goo?”. I guess my face said enough, because I was blessed with the task of de-gooing the meter-long bamboo coral (Isididae) that had just surfaced. Now this is not a task for the faint at heart, or those with a weak stomach…


The coral presented to me looked like a tree branch, roughly 4 feet long, but covered in a bumpy, slimy coating that had the consistency of something you would cough up when you are sick and a smell that I’m not sure I will ever forget. As I spent the next 20 minutes scraping off the goo and carefully collecting the gelatinous skin that this creature carefully created over its lifetime, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. Here I was, a lifelong marine scientist squirming at coral goo, but nevertheless taking the task in full stride. When it was all said and done I earned a passing grade with my de-gooing skills, but I also learned more than I ever thought I would about the creatures living at the bottom of the seafloor. As each new bucket was brought into the cold lab there were ooohs and ahhs of excitement. How do these sponges make such amazing structures? Where do these bright colors come from?  How do the marriage shrimp get trapped inside the sponge together- do they love each other??


As we all scurried around sorting the samples I also realized something else, perhaps the most important thing about research cruises is collaboration. As sediment geologists, water chemists, radioisotope chemists, physical oceanographers and biologists all huddled around these samples I realized that oceanographic discovery would not be possible if we did not work together. Science can become compartmentalized very quickly and often if you go into the lab next door, you don’t really know what’s going on. But on the open ocean you become a family of misfit skills and everyone lends a hand.


For now I’ll go back to my water samples but if anyone needs some epic de-gooing skills, let me know!


Rebecca Pickering

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“How do you feel about goo?” (Photo credit: James Williams)

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Bamboo coral collected in the Labrador Sea. (Photo credit: Rebecca Pickering)


Nature’s great Ice Temple

“…the limits of the unknown had to recede step by step before the ever-increasing yearning after light and knowledge of the human mind, till they made a stand in the north at the threshold of Nature’s great Ice Temple…”

–Dr. Fridjof Nansen, Farthest North


This morning we awoke to the news that we had spent much of the night being chased off station by floating icebergs. As the sun rose, it glinted off of more than a dozen icebergs within easy reach and later, as we scanned the seafloor for good sites to take sediment cores, we had to stray from our search lines to avoid colliding with the floating giants.


Despite the fact that they are literally putting kinks in our plans, I have to admit to being thrilled by the sight of these gleaming sculptures of ice. Not only do they make for spectacular photographs, they’re also the modern analogue of the phenomenon I’m studying aboard the Royal Research Ship Discovery.


My name is Allison Jacobel and I’m a postdoctoral research scientist from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Together with Grace Cushman, an undergraduate at Barnard College, I am studying the record of Earth’s past climate preserved in marine sediments. They may not look like much, but these layers of sediment, from deep below the waves, tell us about the ocean’s past temperature, salinity, productivity and how it moved heat around the planet.


Grace and I are particularly interested in the record of rocks and other terrestrial debris deposited by icebergs. These pieces of ice rafted debris were picked up by glaciers on land and as the icebergs melted at sea they deposited their load of pebbles (and sometimes even boulders) in the sediments below. Just as the icebergs floating outside our portholes are a consequence of ice melt from Greenland, the record of icebergs in the marine sediments indicates past melt.


Twenty thousand years ago, Long Island sat at the foot of an enormous glacier fed by an ice sheet that covered the greater part of North America. This was the Last Glacial Maximum, the most recent ice age. Our transition from the LGM, when Boston was covered by almost a mile of ice, to the warm climate of the present was not a smooth one. Research has shown that the transition was punctuated by catastrophic floods of icebergs that disrupted ocean circulation. Studying the history of iceberg melt is thus a valuable way to help us understand abrupt changes in climate and to shed light on the sensitivity of the climate system to additions of freshwater.


Today the Arctic is experiencing a rate of warming faster than any other place on Earth. Dramatic ice loss is occurring from the Greenland Ice Sheet and from the mountain glaciers that surround the Arctic. Although our work on the RRS Discovery is focused on past changes, our results are also important for modern climate prediction efforts. Models are currently equivocal about the future of the ocean’s overturning circulation and understanding how past inputs of meltwater affected circulation is critical to improving these models and climate forecasts.


The early 20th century polar expeditions of Nansen and other famous explorers were dedicated to expanding our geographic knowledge of the poles. Today, we know the shape of the coastlines and the safest routes for travel, but we are still working to push back the limits of the unknown. Not only are we learning the details of modern productivity regimes and deep-sea habitats, we are also using Earth’s own records to uncover its history, in the hope that we might help protect what remains of Nature’s great Ice Temple.


Allison Jacobel

Iceberg field-Marcus

A handful of the icebergs we have observed off of coastal southwest Greenland. (Photo credit: Marcus Badger)


Dirty Iceberg-Allison (ANTARCTICA)

An iceberg transferring debris to the ocean. (Photo credit: Allison Jacobel)


Mega Core-Allison

A Mega Corer, housing 8 sediment cores collected from the seafloor. (Photo credit: Allison Jacobel)


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A sediment core in the process of being sliced for geochemical analyses. (Photo credit: Grace Cushman)

Coprolite and HSB

Two gliders; Coprolite and HSB, have joined us back onboard the Discovery, having been successfully recovered today. These are Slocum Gliders, which are bright yellow, 5 feet long, 50-something kilos with a trim waist. They manipulate Archimedes’ law to steer to different depths in the water and are remotely directed by pilots operating from Southampton.

During their week-long mission, Coprolite and HSB accumulated observations of the water column, ranging from temperature and saltiness to dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll concentration. They were released in the north-eastern Labrador Sea, where they weaved in and out of a strong boundary current not far from the Greenland capital; Nuuk.

This boundary current, known as the West Greenland Current, exchanges water between both Greenland’s large continental shelf and the central Labrador Sea. This includes large-scale eddies, created by the instability of the current structure, that export water westward to the Labrador Sea’s interior. These eddies influence the formation region of a globally important deep water mass in the Labrador Sea. Recently, observations have pointed to an increased Artic freshwater presence from elevated ice melt. This trend, carried by the West Greenland Current, may restrict the extent of deep water formation.

Moreover, biologically essential nutrients, like silica, are associated with meltwater delivered from Greenland’s glacial network. Their pathways into ecosystems are controlled by circulation features dependent on the West Greenland Current, but these important circulation features often happen on small scales in space and time. It is the sampling agility of the gliders that may provide a new perspective on the circulation features initiated by this immense current.

On recovery, a hushed atmosphere swept the ship’s bridge as we squinted through a band of fog and idle seabirds for the yellow fins of the gliders. The sea surface was calm and glossy. It had the texture of jelly, with corduroy-like ripples and the gliders seemed to gloop out of it as they were whisked up into the air.

Still wet from their journey, Coprolite and HSB rest with tired batteries back on the Discovery. The mountains around Nuuk fade away into mist as the ship steams south, and it scores the surface of the Atlantic waters as it does so. We are heading towards the Southern tip of Greenland where the orange sunrise and marmalade seas will shine the toes of different mountains and, our science investigation will continue.

Jake Opher (PhD student based at the British Antarctic Survey)

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The glider, Coprolite, being lowered over the side of the Discovery for its week-long survey. Photo credit: Marcus Badger


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A pair of Pilot Whales basking in the early morning sun off the coast of Nuuk. Photo credit: Marcus Badger

Shannon a’Hoy!

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.

Adam Cooper

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Shannon trying to salvage multibeam data in 50 knot winds! Photo credit: Laura Robinson

Musings from the Graveyard Shift

What’s it like to be on the night shift of ICY-LAB when the weather’s bad? Here we ask the night-shifters for their impressions of the cruise so far, and what have they learnt?

Michelle says she has learnt that you just can’t hold a sea pig in one hand – it’s true!

Shannon has learnt Casing Software. She says it may seem boring, but it lets you see how all the ship’s acoustics systems are running.

Hong Chin is convinced that you just can’t get enough seawater for sampling – FACT.

Everyone agrees that cheese can be a component of every meal – and that you can eat too much cake.

Laura has learnt that the smell of cheese and onion crisps is not helpful when you’re feeling seasick.

Adam’s favourite activities are recording ROV data on cassettes and pickling biological samples for genetic analyses in ethanol – and he learnt how to appropriately stuff a Euplectella (the ‘marriage sponge’ that two shrimps are locked within for life) to retain its delicate shape.

We all appreciate Hong Chin’s thank-you bow; it’s respectful and delightful.

Steph has learnt that up to a certain point the rolling of the ship is soporific – but too much is too much.

We all learnt that the ‘happy baby’ yoga position cannot be held with a straight face on a rolling ship.

Shannon is aware that she creates science hazards by doing multibeam surveys – George succumbed to the only real bout of seasickness.

Weirdly we have been learning Southern manners, courtesy of Shannon.

James only brought one pair of shoes, so he wears overshoes most of the time – we like that.

We have learnt the direct tea and biscuit ratio to encourage important ROV collections from the engineers.

Adam has learnt the correct pronunciation of Desmophyllum.

We learnt how many kilograms of samples we can collect before the ROV can’t leave the seafloor.

Laura learnt that James is hilarious.

George has learnt to think on his feet – you can’t always stick to the protocol when the conditions aren’t right.

Michelle has learnt that you have to be very clear when explaining genetics to geologists.

You can’t pack too many bungees.



The (tired, but cheerful!) Night Shift


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The Night Shift Team! Photo credit: Shannon Hoy

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Night Shift Team Leader, Laura Robinson. Photo credit: Shannon Hoy

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An atmospheric sunrise over Western Greenland, while CTD surveys were underway. Photo credit: Shannon Hoy

Transit to Greenland!

My name is Kate, and I’m the chief scientist on board DY081. As chief scientist, I have to make decisions about where we go and what we do, so it’s a pretty full time job! This is the first time that I’ve been in this role. I’ve learned a lot so far – and I’m sure the learning curve will continue to rise steeply – so I’m enjoying the challenge. It helps immensely that I have such a fantastic team with me.

A beautiful sunset during ROV deployment the other day (photo credit: Shannon Hoy)

We’re now in transit from our first site at Orphan Knoll to our next target: Greenland.  This means that there’s a little bit more time for everyone (including me!) to catch up on things after working so hard, such as laundry, calling home, and blog writing! The weather so far has been kind to us, but we’re following in the wake of a storm so the waves are a little bigger than they have been – just as a little reminder that we’re still at sea!



Our first site was a great success.  We collected water samples, particles from the seawater, sediment cores, and biology – and everyone on board is pleased to get their samples. I’m delighted too that things have gone so well – but I’m also itching to get to Greenland!  The main aim of ICY-LAB is to study how the melting of ice on land impacts ocean nutrients… so, for that, we need to get closer to the ice itself. All being well, we will be there in a couple of days and will be able to report back more!

Some of the ICY-LAB team enjoying a bit of sunbathing during the transit to Greenland, taking a break from the hard work at Orphan Knoll (photo credit Marcus Badger)


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.

ICY-lab image 2

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