Ocean explorer

Nature

I have just spent six months in the Great Barrier Reef on the research vessel Falkor. Every cruise tackles cutting-edge science and, as lead technician, I’ve been able to witness so many firsts: the RV Falkor is the first ship to map much of this area at high resolution, and to put a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) down in the Great Barrier Reef at depths of up to 2,000 metres. So everything we’re seeing is new. With the ROV’s two arms, we gather samples of rocks, corals, sediments, jellyfish — everything we come across down there — for collaborators to analyse later.

Recently, we discovered a peculiar knoll rising from the sea floor 2,000 metres down, peaking 300 metres below the surface. The odd thing is that it shouldn’t be there. There’s little to no volcanic activity in the area to create a mound, and it should have been eroded by water like its surroundings. Analysis of the rock samples we took from the knoll might explain things.

I’m the main liaison between the ship’s crew and the scientists travelling with us. Three technicians maintain all the shipboard systems, including an instrument to measure ocean conductivity, temperature and density; a multibeam scanner to map the ocean floor; and the ROV SuBastian, which I’m working on in the photo.

We’ve been lucky that our institution, the Schmidt Ocean Institute in Palo Alto, California, has kept the work going during the pandemic. Everyone undergoes a two-week hotel quarantine and COVID‑19 testing before getting on board. Other researchers haven’t been able to get to sea, so we livestream our ROV dives. Collaborators can log in and tell us what looks worth sampling. Anyone can watch and ask the scientists questions, and receive live answers.

Science never sleeps. I work 12-hour shifts every day for 6-month stretches, with no days off, and I’m on call all the time. I’m just starting six months on leave, but sometimes I’ll tune in to the dives. It’s exciting stuff.

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