Ascension SAERI expedition day 1: ‘The Frontier of Science’

October 16, 2015


Charles Clover has flown out to Ascension Island to track the progress of an expedition which is looking where no human has looked before.

It doesn’t take long to get to the point in the briefing at 10.00am, two hours after most of the scientists landed, and before they go out to the boat.  Dave, the head of the British Antarctic Survey scientists on board, warns laconically that the seabed feature they have come to look at isn’t quite where it should be and the vessel has been doing some multibeam surveys of the sea bed to locate it.  He says: “I have no idea what we will pull up.” Ollie says: “Frontier of science.”

And so it is.  There is palpable excitement among the assembled scientists because this really is exploration: Ascension below dive depth is what no expedition of this kind has seen before.  Nobody knows what they will find but, as Dave explains, they will photograph it with drop down cameras, slice it for DNA, freeze it or preserve it in ethanol and get scientists on five continents to see if they can identify it.  Last time Simon was here, for a shallow survey, he found a fairly unassuming small eyed snake eel that was probably a new species.  This time they are putting cameras and trawls down up to 1000 metres into waters no one has examined.  Dave tells his team to interrogate every image, to judge if it serves its purpose, and if it doesn’t to take another one, and then another one.

Peter briefs on kit.  You must wear boots, helmet and gloves on the deck.  You can wear nothing else or a bikini if you want but you must wear those.  He says scary things about the decks having to be cleared because the thin steel trawl hawsers can break on the sharp volcanic rock of the bottom and spring back across deck like a bullwhip.  He warns the scientists to bring in trawls hand over hand and never to twist a rope around your arm.   The scientists will work 12 hour shifts but there is no rule that you can’t work when it is not your shift.  You will be woken up 15 minutes before your shift if you are needed.  It will say on a white board what you are to do.

Among the incidental delights of the trip they may see humpback whales, pods of dolphins, noddies, terns, skipjack tuna and flying fish. Paul tells the story of an expedition he went on where a Colossal Squid grabbed the CTD (oceanographic kit for measuring salinity) as it was coming out of the water and gave everyone a shock – so much so that nobody has a picture of it, of course.  But none of this will compare with gathering around a silver tray to examine something unfamiliar at which point someone with an expertise that nobody else has will be invited to pronounce on what they have found.

Peter says, with emphasis, “Don’t chuck ANYTHING over the side. ”

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